Biden extends public health emergency as omicron XBB.1.5 spreads

People wearing masks walk next to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing site in New York City, New York, United States, December 12, 2022.

Edward Munoz | Reuters

The Biden administration has extended the Covid-19 public health emergency until April as a highly transmissible subvariant of omicron fuels concern that the United States could face another wave of hospitalizations due to the disease this winter.

“The COVID-19 public health emergency remains in effect, and as HHS committed to earlier, we will provide 60 days notice to states prior to any potential termination or expiration,” a spokesperson for the HHS said. Department of Health and Social Services.

The United States has renewed the Covid public health emergency every 90 days since the Trump administration issued the first declaration in January 2020.

The emergency declaration has had a huge impact on the US healthcare system over the past three years. It protected public health insurance coverage for millions of people, provided hospitals with greater flexibility to respond to patient influxes, and expanded telehealth.

The White House Covid task force led by Dr Ashish Jha has repeatedly sought to reassure the public that the United States is in a much stronger position today due to the widespread availability of vaccines. and Covid treatments that prevent serious illness and death from the virus.

In August, HHS asked local and state health officials to begin preparing for the end of the emergency in the near future. HHS has pledged to give state governments and health care providers 60 days notice before lifting the declaration.

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President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over by September, a time when infections, hospitalizations and deaths were all down. But HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters on a call in October that what the virus does this winter will determine whether or not the emergency continues.

Once U.S. authorities decide to end the public health emergency, hospitals will lose flexibility in how they deploy staff, add beds and care for patients if admissions surge. The lifting of the emergency could also affect the greatly expanded role that pharmacies have played in administering vaccines during the pandemic, although the extent of this impact is not yet clear.

Millions of Americans are also expected to lose their health insurance coverage through Medicaid in the coming months. Congress has prohibited states from excluding people from the program for the duration of the public health emergency. As a result, Medicaid enrollment jumped 30% to more than 83 million.

Last month, Congress severed Medicaid public health emergency protections and said states could begin removing people from Medicaid in April if they no longer meet eligibility requirements.

Omicron XBB.1.5 is spreading fast

The omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant is rapidly becoming dominant in the United States. Scientists believe it has a growth advantage because it binds better to human cells and is also adept at evading immunity. The World Health Organization has described it as the most transmissible subvariant to date, although there is no data so far indicating that it makes people sicker.

Since the arrival of omicron in the United States at the end of 2021, which caused massive waves of infection in the United States and around the world, Covid has fragmented into an alphabetical soup of subvariants that evolve into increasingly able to evade immunity to vaccination and infection.

Scientists at Columbia University, in a study published in December, found that the BQ and XBB families of omicron subvariants pose the greatest threat to Covid vaccines and could cause a wave of breakthrough infections. These subvariants are also resistant to all licensed antibody treatments used to protect people with weakened immune systems.

In a series of Twitter posts last week, Jha expressed concern about the rapid rise of XBB.1.5 but doesn’t think the subvariant represents a huge setback. He encouraged people to get an omicron booster if they haven’t already had one and for vulnerable people to get antiviral treatment if they have a breakthrough infection.

So far, only 38% of people age 65 and older have received an omicron booster, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are concerns that as XBB.1.5 spreads, it could cause increased hospitalizations and deaths among older Americans.

Jha said most people hospitalized and dying from Covid right now are 70 and older and either not up to date on their vaccines or untreated when they have a breakthrough infection.

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