US set to extend Covid-19 public health emergency past July

A healthcare worker comforts a patient in the Covid-19 ward at United Memorial Medical Centre in Texas, on Dec 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - The US government will extend the Covid-19 public health emergency past mid-July, continuing pandemic-era policies as the nearly two-and-a-half-year outbreak drags on.

The Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly renewed the public health emergency since implementing it in January 2020.

The declaration allows the US to grant emergency authorisations of medication, vaccines and other medical countermeasures, as well as administer those products to millions of people at no out-of-pocket cost.

It's also enabled millions of Americans to get health coverage through Medicaid, among other benefits.

On April 16, HHS extended the public health emergency an additional 90 days through mid-July. The declaration will be extended beyond that period, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the details aren't public. That means various measures to relax restrictions in how care is accessed across the health system will continue.

An HHS spokesperson said the public health emergency remains in effect, and the department will continue to provide a 60-day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration.

The Biden administration is extending the declaration as it simultaneously calls on Congress to approve billions in additional funding for pandemic response. A whittled-down US$10 billion (S$13.9 billion) Senate deal collapsed after Republicans objected to plans to lift a pandemic-era health policy known as Title 42, which has allowed for the widespread expulsion of asylum-seekers crossing the US-Mexico border.

National health organisations, including the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Paediatrics, have lobbied for the public health emergency to be extended.

Last week, the groups wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra urging the Biden administration to maintain the emergency "until it is clear that the global pandemic has receded and the capabilities authorised by the PHE are no longer necessary".

"This will help prevent any future surges from threatening the health and safety of patients and the ability of health-care professionals to care for them," the groups said, citing concerns about future variants.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have encouraged the administration to unwind the temporary declaration, which was enacted via the Public Health Service Act, and return to pre-pandemic status.

When the emergency period ultimately ends, the US will lose certain powers and likely roll back many Covid-19 programmes that pharmaceutical companies, tele-health providers and insurers have relied on.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.