MURRAY – The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) was declared in the United States on Jan. 31, 2020, and with it, came many policy changes to allow government entities flexibility in their response to the pandemic. After 13 renewals over the course of 39 months, the declaration officially expired Friday.
In advance of the expiration, at Thursday’s Team Kentucky Update, Commissioner for Public Health Dr. Steven Stack said the day was “a long time coming,” calling it “a very welcome day for us all,” before he went through several noteworthy changes to data reporting as well as testing, vaccinations and treatments moving forward.
As of Friday, much of the data necessary for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Kentucky Department for Public Health (KDPH) to generate several of the reports and maps to which many have grown accustomed over the last three years are no longer being reported. Those include CDC’s Community Levels Map and KDPH’s Incidence Rate Map.
KDPH will continue reporting some state-specific metrics, such as county-level case and death counts, on the data tab of the kycovid19.ky.gov website; however, the frequency of reporting will move from weekly to monthly. Stack hinted the site might be replaced in the fall with a site that would include data on other respiratory illnesses, namely influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), in addition to COVID.
KDPH’s vaccine dashboard will remain for the time-being; however, as vaccination data becomes increasingly complex, Stack advised the dashboard may stop producing useful information in the coming months and be taken down.
“With respect to vaccination nationwide, only 20% of people over 18 and only 43% of people over 65 have received a bivalent booster,” Stack said. “Staying current with your COVID-19 vaccination remains the easiest and most effective way to protect yourself from the severe harm of COVID or worse complications. I urge everyone: please be open to getting your vaccine.”
Bivalent vaccines and boosters as well as COVID tests and treatments, like Paxlovid, will continue to be provided free of charge until current supplies run out. After that point, they will be filed with insurance companies and processed like any other medical care. The federal government will no longer provide households with free at-home COVID tests.
In addition to the return of cost-sharing for tests, vaccinations and treatments, Jeff Eye, vice president of patient care services for Murray-Calloway County Hospital, said that many of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reporting requirements and regulations for Healthcare industry which were waived in order to make it easier to withstand surges and respond to the pandemic will come back. Not all will go away immediately; some will be staged over time. For example, some of the telehealth changes will remain in effect until the end of the year.
“The biggest change, in my opinion, that we’re going to see are all the changes to the support programs,” Eye said. “For SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, a lot of the work requirements come back. For Medicaid, in particular, they suspended a lot of the recertification requirements; so there could be a fair number of people who come off of the Medicaid rolls as the emergency rules ends. A lot of flexibility was put in to make sure people had some type of insurance coverage and that it covered care for COVID-related conditions. That goes away.”
Pam Gray, who works through West Kentucky Allied Service as Calloway County’s Kynector, confirmed that all Medicaid and KCHIP (Kentucky Children’s Health Insurance Program) participants need to go to kynect.ky.gov and make sure their contact information is up to date as soon as possible so that the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) can notify them about the steps they need to take in order to maintain their health coverage. Some will be required to fill out forms and submit documents to keep their benefits.
Despite the PHE being over, Stack noted that COVID has not gone away. Even now, more than 50 Kentuckians die every week from COVID.
“But if you do the things we’ve recommended – stay home if you’re sick; test if you think you have COVID; get treatment if you have COVID; get vaccinated to lower your risk – if you do those things, you can stay safe and you can keep your loved ones well,” he advised. “So, I think that we are at a point where we can solidly live with this now. Life has got to move on.”
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