DC-area health departments shed light on what the end of federal COVID emergency actually means

The federal COVID emergency ends on May 11 after over three years, though it may end sooner if President Joe Biden signs a bill passed by the House and Senate. So what will that look like for you and how will local health departments respond moving forward?

“For a lot of people, they may not notice a significant change,” said deputy chief for public health services, Sean O’Donnell with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.

Public health departments have filled a variety of roles during the pandemic, from tracking health data, offering guidance and distributing vaccines and COVID-19 tests.

O’Donnell told WTOP many of their practices won’t go away, they will just transition to smaller-scale operations.

The Montgomery County Health Department will continue to administer vaccines at no charge.

“The federal government has been purchasing large amounts of COVID vaccine to distribute out to states and localities to administer to the public. That vaccine will continue to be free … while that supply lasts, and we don’t yet know how long that supply will last,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell expects his health department and many others will make it to the middle of the summer with current supplies.

Deputy director for medical services at the Fairfax County Health Department Dr. Parham Jaberi told WTOP, “We’re not holding any more of those large mass vaccination sites, but to the average individual if they still need those resources, that will be available in the community.”

Dr. Jaberi added that the Fairfax County Health Department will no longer offer free COVID-19 testing.

Insurers will also no longer be required to cover the cost of at-home tests.

Patients on Medicaid will still be able to get free tests until the end of 2024. Montgomery County will continue to have no out-of-pocket cost for tests if patients do not have insurance.

But O’Donnell contends that testing, like much of the campaign against COVID, will become seasonal.

“Looking at times when transmission rates go up, and then we’ll want to make sure that the community has access to testing, but we likely won’t do it around the entire year. It’ll transition more into kind of how we deal with flu season,” O’Donnell told WTOP.

Local health departments will also likely take more of a seasonal approach to vaccine pushes as well.

“We’re still waiting to hear whether the CDC is going to recommend another round of boosters before the fall, or whether they’ll just wait till the fall to see if there’s any variance,” said Dr. Jaberi.

“It is likely that we’ll get the common efforts between COVID and the flu in the future.”

Community health data tracking will also focus on the fall and winter months.

“COVID cases have mirrored what we call … seasonal variation. So they have increased when it has gotten cooler, much like the flu, and they have come down as the weather has gotten warmer,” Said Dr. Jaberi on the scaling down of their COVID surveillance operations.

Reporting requirements will also be relaxed for doctor’s offices, where they will not need to report any negative tests.

While health departments won’t see a shock other parts of the health sector will see drastic changes.

Hospitals will likely take a hit as they will no longer receive 20% extra for COVID-19 treatments for patients on Medicare.

Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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