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3 years later, the COVID public health emergency is drawing to a close

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the United States passes out of its COVID emergency. We have been in an official state of emergency ever since early 2020, when then-Health Secretary Alex Azar faced reporters at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX AZAR: The United States government will implement temporary measures to increase our abilities to detect and contain the coronavirus proactively and aggressively.

INSKEEP: Temporary came to mean more than three years, although for many people, the feeling of an emergency passed away long ago. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to tell us what is changing on this day and what is not. Hey there, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: It is weird even to try to remember what it felt like in early 2020, how disorienting that moment was.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, at the very beginning of 2020, we had no idea what was in store. Schools shut down initially just for a few weeks.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Wow.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And in the past three years, there have been at least 6 million hospitalizations from COVID in the U.S. and 1.1 million U.S. deaths. That's not a final figure. At least a thousand people a week still die, although those numbers have been trending down for months. And I should say opinion is divided on whether it's really the right time to end this emergency declaration. Some say it should have happened earlier. Others are still concerned, including Professor Howard Markel at the University of Michigan. He is a physician and medical historian.

HOWARD MARKEL: People are tired. Three years is a long, long, long time for this kind of stuff. I get that. But what I would say is that be careful out there.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Markel himself actually got COVID in January and is still not feeling great. He says the end of the declaration does not mean COVID is done with us.

INSKEEP: Well, I finally got COVID just a few months ago, and I'm aware that it's out there, that members of my family could get it. But the declaration is ending today. So what does that mean in practice?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the federal government will no longer buy COVID tests or vaccine doses or treatments to give out to the American public for free. So that's a big change. Health insurance is going to take over. Patients will have to go to the doctor, get a prescription, perhaps pay a copay, just like they do for any other illness. Now, I should say, vaccines will still be free for practically everyone, including people who are uninsured, at least while the federal supply lasts. Also, CDC will be scaling back its COVID data tracking efforts and won't update it as regularly. And for people on Medicaid, the requirement to recertify that you qualify every year was on hold during the pandemic. That has started up again. So everyone will have to recertify at some point this year to keep coverage.

INSKEEP: Getting back to what we vaguely recall as normal from before the pandemic - I'm thinking of another thing that I did for the first time in my life early in the pandemic, and that is that I had some doctor's appointment, and I did it on my phone. It was remote. It was telemedicine, which was suddenly much easier to do under new rules early in the pandemic. Is that going away?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It is not, partly because it is so popular. It is going to stay the same. And that includes access to controlled substances via telemedicine and hospital-at-home programs. So a lot of those remote programs are going to stay in place, at least for now. All of the COVID tests and vaccines and treatments that the Food and Drug Administration approved for emergency use will also still be available. And I would say a lot of these real-world impacts are kind of on the technical side. For most people walking around, the end of the declaration is more than anything a moment to stop and reflect on the closing of this particular chapter.

INSKEEP: If we can even stand to think back.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes.

INSKEEP: Selena, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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