COVID-19 public health emergency officially ends

Meanwhile, people should pay close attention to insurers’ notices about the costs of tests, treatments and vaccines.

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OLYMPIA — With the federal COVID-19 public health emergency ending Thursday, the state Department of Health sounded notes of celebration and caution.

“All Washingtonians have had such a tremendously difficult time during the last few years,” said Dr. Umair Shah, secretary of the Department of Health. But, he added at a press briefing May 5, “the glimmer of hope is that Washingtonians did their part. And for that we should all be so incredibly proud.”

Shah detailed the high vaccination rates in the state and consistently low COVID-19 death rates relative to the rest of the country. According to federal data, Washington had the sixth-lowest COVID-19 death rate in both 2020 and 2021. He called all of this “remarkable” given Washington had the first known case, outbreak and death in the country.

Even so, more than 16,000 Washingtonians have died, which includes more than 1,500 Snohomish County residents, according to state data.

Residents won’t notice much of a difference immediately in the post-emergency phase, state officials said in the briefing.

People could begin to see some out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. All of that will vary depending on whether people have insurance, which specific plan they have, and if they receive care in- or out-of-network.

The state continues to follow vaccine recommendations set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those guidelines will likely evolve, depending on research, new virus variants and new vaccines.

This week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the end of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for current and prospective state employees, effective Thursday. Beginning July 25, some state employees can receive a $1,000 incentive payment with proof of an up-to-date vaccination.

The federal government will continue to provide three free vaccine doses per person as long as supplies last. By fall, private insurers might cover the vaccine like other vaccines.

Those private insurers will no longer be required to fully cover COVID tests ordered or administered by a doctor. Nor will private insurers be required to reimburse people for at-home tests. The average price of an at-home test is $11, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

At-home tests are free through Thursday, for select zip codes, through a state program: sayyescovidhometest.org. The federal program for free mail-order tests remains in place for now: covid.gov/tests.

People with the state’s Medicaid program, Apple Health, can expect free COVID-19 vaccines and free tests administered by health care providers until fall 2024, said Jason McGill, assistant director of the Medicaid Program division at the Health Care Authority.

McGill also discussed the “unwinding” of automatic Apple Health renewals. The first letters to enrollees went out April 1, with a 60-day time frame to renew. The state had earlier estimated that 38,000 Snohomish County residents could lose eligibility.

McGill said the early numbers show about 10% of enrollees statewide losing Apple Health coverage, many because they have gained health insurance through an employer. Apple Health members can go to wahealthplanfinder.org to find out more and update their contact information.

Even with the end of the emergency, state health department officials emphasized that COVID-19 is not disappearing.

“We still need to continue to do all possible to continue to protect the health and well-being of our loved ones, and our communities,” Shah said. “And this is not just about COVID-19, but the impact of COVID-19 as well as the fight against this pandemic on general physical, and mental, and emotional and spiritual health.”

Long COVID is one of those impacts, said Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, chief science officer for the department.

“Long COVID is a real disease that is estimated to affect more than 300,000 people in Washington state, many of whom have suffered enormous impacts to their quality of life,” he said. Their symptoms — change in taste or smell, fatigue, cough, and so on — might last weeks or even years. Experts have much work to do to increase awareness of long COVID, and access to diagnosis and treatment.

Masking and other prevention recommendations that relied partly on the CDC will move to a more local level of monitoring, as the CDC phases out some reporting. But the Snohomish County Health Department will continue to monitor hospitalizations and hospital capacity, as well as receive reports of outbreaks in places like schools, child cares and long-term care facilities.

The county health department would make future recommendations on prevention measures, like universal indoor masking, based on COVID-19 data and the transmission of other respiratory viruses, like RSV, spokesperson Kari Bray wrote in an email.

In a blog post Wednesday, Bray wrote: “There still are unknowns on exactly how specific funding, guidance, or other measures tied to the end of the emergency status could play out locally. We’ll also have to see what the 2023-24 COVID and flu season brings, and where we can best meet needs for vaccination, testing, treatment, or other resources.”

Joy Borkholder: 425-339-3430; joy.borkholder@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jlbinvestigates.

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