The COVID-19 emergency is officially ending. What does that mean for you?
President Biden has signed a GOP-authored bill declaring an end to the COVID-19 national emergency, and the president is eliminating certain vaccine requirements beginning Friday, as the World Health Organization declares an end to the global pandemic emergency.
The White House is winding down its COVID-19 response team, and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has declared the public health emergency will end on Friday.
"Obviously, we're in a different place now than we were two and a half years ago when the president came into office, right?" White House COVID-19 Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday. "Hospitalizations and deaths are down by well over 90%. And the secretary made a decision to end the public health emergency because we are in a much better place."
So what does this mean for Americans?
COVID-19 vaccines will continue to be free of charge until the nation's stockpiled vaccines expire or run out, and Jha said the federal government still has an ample supply. Because they qualify as preventative services under the Affordable Care Act, vaccines will continue to remain free even that for most Americans, Jha said.
Jha says "nearly" every COVID-19 death is now preventable.
"And that's from very clear data that we have looked at of who's dying, what their vaccine status is, what their treatment status is," Jha said. "And from a very large-scale kind of cohort data that shows that if you're up to date on your vaccines and you get treated, death numbers are exceedingly low in the population."
A White House official said the U.S. continues to have a significant supply of Paxlovid, the antiviral that has proven effective in preventing severe disease and death for high-risk patients. Eventually, patients will pay for the drug through their insurance as a Medicare Part D drug. Pricing negotiations will largely be directly between Health and Human Services and Pfizer, the maker of Paxlovid.
No more COVID vaccine requirements for federal workers
Federal workers and contractors will no longer need to be vaccinated against the virus or obtain an approved exemption. The president on Tuesday issued an executive order ending the vaccine requirement for such workers as of May 12, saying, "we no longer need a government-wide vaccination requirement for federal employees or federally specified safety protocols for federal contractors."
No more COVID vaccine requirements for international travelers
The president on Tuesday issued an executive order ending the vaccine requirement for international travelers flying into the U.S. That executive order is also effective Thursday.
"Considering the progress that we have made, and based on the latest guidance from our public health experts, I have determined that we no longer need the international air travel restrictions that I imposed in October 2021," Mr. Biden said in his executive order.
Should you be concerned about new COVID variants?
Jha said the Centers for Disease Control will continue to track emerging variants. The COVID-19 coordinator said the virus continues to evolve at the pace it has before. Right now, Jha said most cases are the XBB variant of Omicron. Still, the federal government is closely monitoring all areas of the globe for new strains.
Jha is still the COVID-19 coordinator, for now
Jha didn't elaborate on his future plans, as the White House's COVID-19 team winds down. He's still the COVID-19 coordinator, he said.
"I am here, and when I have something to announce about my future plans, I will be happy to share it," Jha said.
COVID isn't going to disappear
All this progress doesn't mean COVID-19 is going away. It's here to stay, Jha said. But he emphasized that the risk of long COVID for people who are up to date on their vaccinations and get treated as necessary is very low.
"I don't know anybody who thinks we're going to eradicate COVID, right?" Jha said. "COVID is going to be with us. Our ability to manage COVID continues to get better. It is better today than it was 18 months ago. It was better 18 months ago than it was three years ago. Part of the reason for continuing to make investments is we want to make sure that progress continues."
"I think about my parents who are in their 80s — they stay up to date on their vaccines, they both have gotten COVID and have gotten treated with Paxlovid," Jha said. "The data suggests on long COVID that if you're up to date on your vaccines and you get treated, your risk of long COVID is very low. It's not zero, but it's very low. People will have to do their own individual risk assessment, but the bottom line is, we're at a point where things that people value are largely safe."
What happens if there's another pandemic?
Jha said there "is no question in my mind" that the U.S. is "much better prepared" for a future pandemic scenario than they were before.
"But obviously, for future preparedness, we also need resources," Jha said. "This is why we need congressional partnership here, because you can't be prepared for ongoing threats without resources and so congressional action here is very critical."
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