The COVID-19 emergency is ending, but free tests remain in Ohio, for now
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) -- The federal COVID-19 public health emergency will end Thursday, but the Ohio Department of Health will maintain much of its approach to the virus as federal reporting guidelines change and directives expire.
More than three years into the spread of COVID-19, the federal emergency declaration's expiration means the slow, nationwide breakdown of what has become normal in the pandemic era: Free and easily accessible COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. Although the country is shifting its approach to COVID-19 as an endemic problem, the Ohio Department of Health has a healthy supply of tests and vaccines that it intends to distribute to community partners, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, department director, said at a Thursday press conference.
"I want to emphasize that overall, I do not foresee any immediate or dramatic changes in the Ohio Department of Health's ability to serve as a resource as a result of this shift," Vanderhoff said. "We remain dedicated to preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19, in particular for populations at higher risk."
Ohio will continue tracking some COVID-19 measures -- particularly deaths. But the expiration of the public health emergency means that certain COVID-19 data, including county-level test positivity rates and vaccination rates, will no longer be tracked across the U.S., and the state will have to archive some of its metrics accordingly.
The most immediate change Vanderhoff foresees is the ending of free COVID-19 tests that the federal government has shipped to homes through the postal service. The health department will continue distributing its free COVID-19 tests to local health departments, schools, long-term care facilities and other community partners, upon request. Those with Medicaid coverage will receive free tests through September 2024, Vanderhoff said.
The federal government will continue to provide free vaccines "for now," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but insurance companies are no longer required to fully cover the costs of COVID-19 tests. While supplies last, COVID-19 treatments such as Paxlovid will remain free. After supplies run out, the cost of COVID-19 treatment is up to the medication manufacturers and insurance companies.
Many insurance companies consider COVID-19 vaccines part of preventative care, Vanderhoff said. COVID-19 vaccines are covered under some Medicare plans, and all Medicaid plans through at least September 2024. The federal government also has established a bridge plan so uninsured people can received free vaccines through 2024.
Ohio's reported COVID-19 cases have trended downward for weeks, with the health department last week reporting its lowest case numbers since it started reporting weekly in March 2022. The most recent case surge was in late December, with weekly COVID-19 cases nearing 18,000.
Vanderhoff cautioned against interpreting the end of the public health emergency as the end of COVID-19's danger to the public -- it's still here, he said.
"The reality is that people are still getting sick, and tragically, the lives of 40 to 50 Ohioans are claimed by this virus every week," Vanderhoff said.
More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the CDC. Although the CDC will continue tracking COVID-19 deaths, it will update tallies weekly using the National Vital Statistics System, which tracks all births and deaths.
All hospitals are required to report COVID-19 hospitalization data through April 2024, but hospitalization numbers will be released weekly instead of daily.
Dr. David Margolius, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, said that Ohio is better situated to monitor and counteract case surges than when the pandemic began. Instead of relying on testing reports, health departments across the U.S. instead surveil wastewater for the presence of the virus.
As far as day-to-day life, Margolius recommended staying vigilant -- and getting tested at your local health department if you have symptoms. If you are infected, he said it's important to remember that you are contagious, and you present a special risk to those with weakened immune systems.
And Vanderhoff emphasized how vital vaccines will continue to be in battling the virus.
"It's important to underline that the end of the public health emergency does nothing to change the message about the importance of staying up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines," Vanderhoff said. "If anything, it reminds us that getting vaccinated has played big part in hopefully getting COVID-19 under control and allowing us to continue to more normalcy."