President Biden to end national COVID-19 emergencies on May 11

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told Congress Monday that he would end twin national emergencies to combat COVID-19 on May 11, as most of the world returned to closer to normal nearly three years after their first statement.

The decision to end national emergency and public health emergency declarations would formally restructure the federal coronavirus response to treat the virus as an endemic public health threat that can be handled by normal agency authorities.

It comes as lawmakers have already ended elements of the emergencies that have kept millions of Americans safe during the pandemic. Combined with the withdrawal of most federal COVID-19 relief funds, this would also move the development of vaccines and treatments away from the direct management of the federal government.

Biden’s announcement comes in a statement opposing resolutions introduced this week by House Republicans to end the emergency immediately. House Republicans are also preparing to launch investigations into the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, first declared a public health emergency on January 31, 2020, and Trump subsequently declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency in March. Emergencies have been extended several times by Biden since taking office in January 2021 and are set to expire in the coming months. The White House said Biden plans to extend them briefly until May 11.

“An abrupt end to emergency declarations would create large-scale chaos and uncertainty across the entire healthcare system – for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of people. ‘Americans,’ the Office of Management and Budget said in an administrative policy statement.

More than 1.1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19 since 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including about 3,700 as of last week.

Congress has already blunted the scope of the public health emergency that has had the most direct impact on Americans, as political calls to end the declaration have intensified. Lawmakers have for months refused to meet the Biden administration’s demand for billions more dollars to expand free COVID vaccines and testing. And the $1.7 trillion spending package passed last year and signed into law by Biden ended a rule that barred states from kicking people out of Medicaid, a move that is expected to see millions lose their coverage after April 1.

“In some ways, the Biden administration is catching up with what a lot of people around the country have been through,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president of health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “That said, hundreds of people a day are still dying from COVID.”

Still, some things will change for Americans once the emergency expires, Levitt pointed out.

The costs of COVID-19 vaccines are also expected to skyrocket once the government stops buying them, with Pfizer saying it will charge up to $130 per dose. Only 15% of Americans have received the recommended and updated reminder offered since last fall.

People with private insurance could incur costs for vaccines, especially if they go to an out-of-network provider, Levitt said. Free at-home COVID testing will also end. And hospitals will not receive additional payments for treating COVID patients.

Lawmakers extended telehealth flexibilities that were introduced when COVID-19 hit by two years, leading the nation’s health systems to routinely deliver care via smartphone or computer.

The Biden administration previously considered ending the emergency last year, but waited amid concerns about a possible “winter surge” in cases and giving providers, insurers and patients enough time to prepare for its end.

Officials said the administration would use the next three months to transition the response to conventional methods, warning that an immediate end to emergency authorities “would sow confusion and chaos in this critical reduction.”

“To be clear, the continuation of these emergency declarations through May 11 imposes no restrictions on individual conduct with respect to COVID-19,” the administration said. “They are not imposing mask mandates or vaccine mandates. They do not restrict school or business operations. They do not require the use of any drugs or tests in response to COVID-19 cases.

The number of cases has tended to fall after an uptick during the winter holidays and is significantly lower than levels seen over the past two winters – although the number of tests being carried out for the virus and reported to health officials public has fallen sharply.

On Monday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to remain a global health emergency, even though a key advisory group to the group found that the pandemic could be approaching an “inflection point” where immunity levels higher can reduce virus-related deaths. China, for example, reported an unprecedented increase in December after lifting most of its COVID-19 restrictions.

Moments before the White House announcement, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., accused the president of unnecessarily prolonging the public health emergency to take action on issues like canceling some federal student loan debt.

“The country is largely back to normal,” Cole said Monday, introducing a Republican-backed bill calling for an end to the health emergency. “Everyday Americans have returned to work and school with no restrictions on their activities. It’s time for the government to recognize this reality: the pandemic is over.

The House was due to vote on Tuesday on legislation that would end the public health emergency.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., said he still hoped the House would take a vote. He said he was surprised by the White House’s decision, but thinks the legislation may have played a role in prompting the administration to act.

“I think we should move on,” he said Monday night as lawmakers returned to the Capitol. “If for some reason they don’t on May 11, the vehicle is still there for Congress to regain its authority.”

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