With President Joe Biden formally declaring on May 11, 2023, the end to both the COVID-19 public health emergency and the national state of emergency, does that mean COVID is over?
The simple answer is no. COVID-19 is still a pandemic, and the virus continues to mutate into other variants, infecting people and in some cases, resulting in death.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still reporting more than 85,000 cases in the U.S. every week, resulting in hospitalizations and deaths in the thousands. The numbers continue to decline, but the virus is still a concern.
The end of the state of emergency means the U.S. government is scaling back its approach to COVID-19, which means prevention, care and treatment are about to become more expensive.
When will the pandemic end?
To answer this, we can look to history as an example, said Mike Cruz, MD, chief operating officer for OSF HealthCare, referring to the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918 to 1920.
“Literally a hundred years ago, we saw waves of infection where a lot of people died,” Dr. Cruz said.
That pandemic caused more than 550,000 deaths in the U.S. and more than 20 million worldwide. As of early May, COVID-19 has caused nearly 1.131 million deaths in the U.S. and 6.92 million worldwide.
“The COVID-19 virus itself is going to act its own way, as we’ve already seen. There will be waves, new mutations and changes. It’s probably here indefinitely,” said Dr. Cruz, who oversaw the OSF response to the pandemic. “We still have people in the intensive care unit and some on ventilators, of whom some will succumb to the virus. The virus is still here with us.”
It’s also important to understand the difference between epidemic, pandemic and endemic, he said.
“From an educational standpoint – an epidemic is an acute rise in cases of a disease, whereas a pandemic is massive and beyond any borders – global. In the endemic phase, cases plateau, but we’ll see pockets of activity,” he said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for declaring the beginning and end of a pandemic. The organization declared the COVID outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern in January 2020, about six weeks before characterizing it as a pandemic.
An international public health emergency creates an agreement between countries to abide by the recommendations of WHO for managing the emergency. Each country, in turn, declares its own public health emergency – declarations that carry legal weight. Countries use them to marshal resources and waive rules in order to ease a crisis.
On May 5, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the end to the international public health emergency as worldwide cases of infection, hospitalizations and deaths continue downward. However, the organization has yet to reclassify COVID-19 from pandemic status.
What changes you can expect
Here’s a glance at what will change – and what won’t – when the public health emergency ends:
1. Costs are changing
The end of the public health emergency means the way testing, treatment and vaccines for COVID-19 are funded is changing.
How much you end up paying out of pocket will vary based on your insurance coverage.
“Those who have less will definitely be impacted – perhaps they don’t have access to health care or don’t understand how to access care or they can’t afford it or don’t have the means to pay for testing,” Dr. Cruz said. “The good thing about OSF, however, is we care for people no matter their ability to pay. That will continue. That’s who we are,” he said. “If you meet the requirement for treatment, you’ll get the treatment. That’s deep in our Mission to serve with the greatest care and love.”
OSF, the state of Illinois and other organizations are proactively reaching out to individuals previously enrolled with Medicaid to ensure they are re-signed up for coverage so they don’t experience a lapse. In addition, OSF works with federally qualified healthy centers in the communities they serve to meet the needs of those who may not have easy access to health care. And the digital care efforts of OSF OnCall are another way to meet the needs of those individuals. Such as remote monitoring, hospital-level care in the home and digital options to better connect with patients.
2. Telehealth options may be limited
Rules around telemedicine and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) licensing, privacy and liability that were relaxed during the health emergency will go back to the way they were, with some exceptions.
During the emergency, rules about who providers could see under what circumstances, and whether they can provide care for patients who are out of state using certain platforms – like a phone call – all got relaxed.
The rules governing telehealth before the pandemic will go back into effect. Your health care provider may continue offering telehealth appointments, but only for some kinds of appointments, so check with your provider to understand what that means for you.
3. Continue taking precautions against COVID-19
While the national and public health states of emergency will be a thing of the past, COVID-19 will still be with us. Protecting yourself against COVID-19 remains vitally important, Dr. Cruz said.
The basic advice still applies – wash your hands, get vaccinated and wear a mask, if needed. Also, continue getting tested if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, seek treatment and isolate from others if you’re ill.
“I think we’ve learned we’re a society that’s more careful now about going around others or going to work when you’re ill,” Dr. Cruz said.
Protecting yourself against COVID-19 infection is as important as ever.
Last Updated: May 9, 2023