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The COVID-19 national and public health emergencies that went into effect in early 2020 will end May 11, the White House announced Jan. 30. This will mark a symbolic end to a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 1.1 million Americans.
There is never a perfect time to end an emergency like this, says Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But, he said, “I think this reflects the fact that COVID is under much better control than it was a couple years ago.”
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Since 2020, vaccines have been approved that can help keep people from getting seriously sick from a coronavirus infection, and there are now treatments that can help curb COVID complications. We also have greater access to fast, convenient testing and high-quality masks to tamp down on spread.
But the end of the pandemic emergency declarations will usher in a wave of changes that will affect how many people access these tools.
“One of the more immediate changes that people will notice is that they may be required to pay for things or face cost sharing for things that they have been getting for free under the public health emergency,” says Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Program on Medicare Policy at KFF, also known as the Kaiser Family Foundation. And how much you end up paying will depend on the type of insurance you have, she adds.
Paying for COVID-19 vaccines
Medicare and Medicaid will fully cover the COVID-19 vaccines for their beneficiaries, and the majority of people with private insurance will also be covered, a new report from KFF details. But people without health insurance will have to pay for their shots once the federal supply is depleted, Cubanski says. It’s unclear how long it will take to get to that point, but it could happen within the next year or two, says Anna D. Sinaiko, an assistant professor of health economics and policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Pfizer recently suggested that the price for its two-dose COVID vaccine could range from $110 to $130 per dose, while Moderna has said each of its two-dose shots could cost up to $100 on the commercial market. How often adults will need the vaccine is still unknown. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed an annual booster schedule for most adults, but people at higher risk may need more frequent shots.
Testing will cost consumers
At-home COVID tests have been free for many Americans for about a year now. Medicare beneficiaries with Part B, which covers doctor visits and other outpatient services, have been able to get up to eight per month at no cost; private health plans have also been covering them. But when the emergency declarations end, that will no longer be the case.
Cubanski says people with original Medicare will most likely need to pay out of pocket for at-home testing, though tests ordered in a doctor’s office will still be fully covered. People with Medicare Advantage plans or private insurance may also have to start paying for some or all of these over-the-counter tests, Cubanski adds. And for people with Medicaid, coverage for at-home tests will vary by state, though tests ordered by a doctor will continue to be covered, according to KFF.
Currently Americans can still order four free at-home COVID tests per household from the federal government. Sinaiko’s advice: Get some to keep on hand while you still can.