End to national Covid-19 emergency order could affect Vermont’s tools to fight the disease

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

President Joe Biden announced plans to end the emergency order on May 11. The order set requirements for insurance coverage of Covid-19 vaccinations, testing and treatment. File photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

On Monday, President Joe Biden announced that the federal government plans to end the emergency declarations for Covid-19 on May 11, a move that could affect Vermonters’ ability to access vaccinations, testing and treatment for the disease.

The national emergency and public health emergency declarations related to Covid have been in place since 2020, allowing a wide variety of regulatory changes on insurance, health systems, telehealth, pharmacies and vaccine authorizations.

One of the biggest impacts has been requiring Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and private insurers to cover Covid-related care without cost sharing, along with providing a way for uninsured people to get coverage for those services.

Agency of Human Services spokesperson Rachel Feldman said via email that Medicaid coverage for Covid testing and treatment without cost sharing would extend through Sept. 30, 2024.

The agency could not confirm as of Tuesday whether other state-run programs would change their coverage as a result of the federal declarations ending.

At a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott said the decision to end the emergency declarations was appropriate since Covid is “just going to become part of our everyday challenges.”

“We've gotten through this emergency. The vaccine we have is viable, and it will become — just like we do with the normal flu, I believe — that you'll have Covid boosters on a yearly basis of some sort,” Scott said.

But Anne Sosin, a health equity researcher at Dartmouth College, pushed back on Scott’s characterization of the pandemic, pointing out that Covid remained the third-leading cause of death in 2022, even as pandemic restrictions were rolled back.

“We're continuing to lose more Americans each week than in the 9/11 attack,” she said. “Even though we're out of the earliest phases of the pandemic, it's not in any way comparable to the flu or other respiratory viruses.”

She said the change would have a bigger impact on uninsured or underinsured Vermonters, who would lose guaranteed access to free Covid vaccinations and treatments. 

Not all of that access will end when the federal emergency declarations do. Free vaccinations and antiviral treatments such as Paxlovid are expected to remain in place until the federal government depletes its purchased supply, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation

But once the United States reaches that point, the price of vaccines could skyrocket, going up at least three or four times their current cost, according to a Kaiser analysis

“The price of vaccines may quickly be out of reach of under- and uninsured Americans,” Sosin said.

“Many of us are very concerned that this will exacerbate the disparities that we've seen throughout the pandemic, that it will create a situation where people with good insurance and good access to health care will have limited impacts, and those who have poor insurance or who are uninsured and who have less access to health care will be more impacted,” she said. 

It also could disproportionately impact high-risk Vermonters, who are the target of many Covid treatments such as Paxlovid. 

Sosin said the end of the emergency declaration said more about the deprioritization of Covid at a policy level than it did about where things are from a public health perspective.

“We need much more work done to lay the groundwork for this next phase of the pandemic… If we think that Covid is going to be with us for a long time, that means we need to build the systems to manage it into the future,” she said.

Correction: Due to incorrect information from the Agency of Human Services, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the timeline for Medicaid coverage for Covid testing and treatment without cost sharing.

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Erin Petenko

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