Public Health

The COVID-19 public health emergency is over. Now what?

Marc Zarefsky , Contributing News Writer

The COVID-19 public health emergency declared by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expired earlier this month. But that doesn't mean the deadly respiratory illness has disappeared, warned Deb Houry, MD, MPH, chief medical officer and deputy director for program and science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, still exist, so the CDC's vaccination efforts will continue. Dr. Houry said physicians will play a key role in continuing to educate their patients and the public about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

"CDC vaccine safety efforts are not tied to the public health emergency, so they will continue," Dr. Houry said. "We know that hearing about vaccine safety can instill confidence in communities nationwide. This is where we really look to physicians to be the trusted messenger and share facts."

Dr. Houry talked about this effort and other changes physicians and patients may experience following the expiration of the public health emergency in a recent episode of “AMA Update.”

The significance of ending the public health emergency is that it will alter various responses to the pandemic. According to the CDC, the type of data collected and shared by the CDC will change, and COVID-19 at-home tests may no longer be covered by insurers.

Additionally, (HHS) outlined that specific Medicare and Medicaid waivers that helped expand access to care during the pandemic will end.

"The end of the public health emergency is not the end of COVID-19," Dr. Houry said. "The CDC will continue our commitment to prevent severe illness and death by providing the information needed to protect our nation's health."

Physicians should explain to patients that the declaration of a public health emergency is significant because it can trigger certain responses from the government, Dr. Houry said. It also is important for patients to understand that COVID-19 is not spreading as rapidly as it was earlier in the pandemic. According to Dr. Houry, 96% of the population is protected against the worst outcomes of COVID-19 through vaccination or prior infection.

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A critical role that physicians can play now is to keep educating and informing patients, particularly about vaccination, she said.

Physicians and other health professionals "are among the most trusted sources when it comes to vaccine uptake," Dr. Houry noted. "We really encourage all clinicians to talk with patients about their coverage and recommend the COVID-19 vaccines."

Learn more with the AMA about the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PDF).

Physicians and hospitals greatly benefited from the CDC's collection and distribution of key metrics throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the public health emergency declaration has expired, COVID-19 case and death data will no longer be highlighted in the COVID Data Tracker. That data, however, became increasingly less reliable as some states opted to stop collecting case data or share test results, the CDC has said.

"We will have changes in data reporting, but we'll continue to provide timely insights through several different data sources," Dr. Houry said. "One is our nationwide hospitalization data will be reported on a weekly basis and serve as the primary COVID-19 surveillance metric."

The percentage of COVID-19-associated deaths each week will be shared by the CDC, as will the weekly number of COVID-19 hospital admissions and patients who visit the emergency department and are diagnosed with COVID-19.

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The AMA Telehealth Quick Guide, initially developed to track the ever-changing policy and coverage landscape amid the public health emergency, has been updated to help physicians know what to expect now.

Also, the AMA Physician Innovation Network is hosting a virtual discussion through the end of June about telehealth following the end of the public health emergency. A panel of experts will address questions and concerns and discuss best practices regarding the future of telehealth.

AMA Update” covers health care topics affecting the lives of physicians and patients. Hear from physicians and experts on public health, advocacy issues, scope of practice and more—because who’s doing the talking matters. You can catch every episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or the audio-only podcast version, which also features educational presentations and in-depth discussions.