Biden extends public health emergency as omicron XBB.1.5 spreads
People wearing masks walk near a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing site in New York City, New York, USA, December 12, 2022.
Eduardo Munoz | Reuters
The Biden administration has extended the Covid-19 public health emergency until April, as a highly transmissible omicron subvariant raises concerns that the US could face another wave of hospitalizations from the disease this winter.
“The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency remains in effect, and as HHS previously committed, we will provide a 60-day notice to states prior to any potential termination or expiration,” said a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson. Human.
The US has renewed the Covid public health emergency every 90 days since the Trump administration first issued the declaration in January 2020.
The emergency declaration has had a major impact on the US health care system over the past three years. It has protected public health insurance coverage for millions, offered hospitals greater flexibility to respond to patient surges, and expanded telehealth.
The White House Task Force on Covid led by Dr. Ashish Jha has repeatedly sought to reassure the public that the US is in a much stronger place today because of the widespread availability of Covid vaccines and treatments that prevent severe illness and death from the virus.
In August, HHS told local and state health officials to begin preparations for the emergency to end in the near future. HHS has committed to giving state governments and health care providers 60 days notice before lifting the declaration.
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President Joe Biden said the pandemic ended in September, a period when infections, hospitalizations and deaths were all on the decline. But HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters on a call in October that what the virus does this winter will determine whether or not the emergency should continue.
Once US officials decide to end the public health emergency, hospitals will lose flexibility in how they deploy staff, add beds and care for patients when there is a surge in admissions. The lifting of the emergency may also affect the expanded role that pharmacies have played in administering vaccines during the pandemic, although the extent of this impact is not yet clear.
Millions of Americans are expected to lose health insurance coverage under Medicaid in the coming months as well. Congress prohibited states from removing people from the program for the duration of a public health emergency. Medicaid enrollment has increased by 30% to more than 83 million as a result.
Last month, Congress ended Medicaid’s public health emergency protections and said states could begin pulling people from Medicaid in April if they no longer meet eligibility requirements.
Omicron XBB.1.5 spreads rapidly
The omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant is rapidly becoming dominant in the U.S. Scientists believe it has a growing advantage because it is better at binding to human cells and is also adept at evading immunity. The World Health Organization has described it as the most transmissible subvariant yet, although there is no data, so far, showing that it makes people sicker.
Since the arrival of omicron in the US in late 2021, which caused massive waves of infection in the US and around the world, Covid has split into an alphabet soup of sub-variants that are evolving to become increasingly adept at avoiding of immunity from vaccination and infection.
Scientists at Columbia University, in a study published in December, found that the BQ and XBB families of omicron subvariants pose the greatest threat to Covid vaccines and could cause an increase in new infections. These subvariants are also resistant to all authorized antibody treatments used to protect people with weakened immune systems.
In a series of tweets last week, Jha said he was concerned about the rapid growth of XBB.1.5, but did not believe the subvariant represented a major obstacle. He encouraged people to get an omicron booster if they haven’t already and for those affected to get an antiviral treatment if they have a widespread infection.
Only 38% of seniors age 65 and older have received an omicron booster so far, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is concern that as XBB.1.5 spreads, it could cause an increase in hospitalizations and deaths among older Americans.
Jha has said that most people who are hospitalized and die from Covid are now aged 70 and over who are either not up to date on their vaccinations or are not being treated when they have a widespread infection.