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President Biden announced Monday that the two national emergencies that have provided the legal basis for much of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic will end on May 11.
While the declaration of emergencies carried symbolic weight, their most important effect was in giving the government expanded power to take actions that it couldn’t do under normal circumstances. Since the separate national and public health emergencies were declared in early 2020, they have provided legal leeway for everything from vaccine development, mask mandates, expansion of health coverage and telehealth, updated hospital procedures, no-cost COVID testing and treatment, and even the controversial immigration policy known as Title 42.
Biden’s decision came shortly after Republicans in the House of Representatives unveiled a plan to pass legislation that would end the emergencies immediately, but those bills are unlikely to become law.
Though some of the most substantial elements of the federal pandemic response have already been phased out, the end of the emergency declarations will have noticeable effects. Vaccines, testing and treatment — which have been mostly free for the past three years — may carry some new costs, especially for the uninsured. Shipments of free at-home COVID tests will end, as will extra funding that has helped hospitals endure the costs of treating COVID patients.
One of the most important remaining policies that came out of the emergency declarations, rules that barred states from kicking people off Medicaid, will end in April thanks to a provision passed by Congress late last year. Roughly 15 million people are expected to lose Medicaid coverage when that happens, including nearly 7 million who still qualify for the program but may fall through cracks in the bureaucracy.
Why there’s debate
Many public health experts agree with Biden’s decision to end the emergencies, arguing that the decision marks an important transition to treating the coronavirus as an endemic health threat rather than an immediate crisis. “Everyone wants to move on — not necessarily feel that we can’t do better — but move on to a next phase, so we can really begin to assimilate some form of approaching normality,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was the face of the government’s pandemic response, told Bloomberg Law.
Conservatives have largely argued that the move is long overdue and have accused the Biden administration of clinging to its emergency powers as a way to impose unpopular policies on the American people. Some make the case that the emergency should be ended right away, despite Biden’s warning that doing so would create “wide-ranging chaos” in the health care system.
But critics of the decision say that with roughly 500 people dying every day, the COVID emergency is far from over. They argue that rolling back support for testing, vaccinations and treatment will leave Americans — especially those who are at the greatest risk — vulnerable to life-threatening infections and undermine the country’s ability to stifle any future surges caused by potential new variants of the virus.
The end of the public health emergency may affect ongoing legal battles around pandemic-era immigration restrictions and Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. Both matters are being considered by the Supreme Court, and it remains to be seen how this might influence the justices’ rulings.
The country needs to shift to a sustained, long-term COVID strategy
“Covid has become endemic, and the focus going forward must shift from treating it as the dire emergency it once was to managing its effects — in particular, protecting those still vulnerable to severe outcomes from the virus.” — Leana S. Wen, Washington Post
The emergency has been used as an excuse for major overreach by the administration
“I don’t think Biden actually believes we are still in a state of emergency. … Yet the president and his administration have enjoyed the extra powers that have accompanied the national emergency declaration. And they are working hard to cling to this authority, which has granted the executive branch broader control over our lives.” — Ingrid Jacques, USA Today
The emergencies should end now, not in May
“Congress should ignore the administration’s false alarms about immediately ending the emergency declarations and unnecessary Covid restrictions.” — Drew Keyes, National Review
The emergency can’t last forever, and there will never be a perfect time to end it
“Ending the Public Health Emergency is going to create some challenges (particularly viz vaccine/drug pricing). But it has to happen at some point and May (giving us 3 months to prepare) seems as good a time as any.” — Bob Wachter, chair of the University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine
Biden made the right choice, but there are real risks if the wind-down is managed poorly
“The public has moved on and Biden is right to formally end it. It’ll have profound implications for vaccines, treatments & public messaging. Unraveling powers & funding will be daunting.” — Lawrence Gostin, health law expert
The COVID health crisis is far from over
“I get the political/financial pressures for this, but at 500 deaths/day Covid remains devastating public health threat. … Could we see a new variant from China? And what about immunocompromised? Still lots happening.” — Dr. Peter Hotez, vaccine scientist
The end of the emergencies will mean Americans will once again be at the mercy of our broken health care system
“American health care is, like everything else, getting back to normal — which means it will be harder for some people to access the health care they need.” — Dylan Scott, Vox
Officially declaring the emergency over could send a dangerous message to Americans
“This kind of declaration ending does carry symbolic weight. And so there are going to be people that say, ‘Great, I don’t have to worry anymore.’ And I think that’s going to be a little difficult to manage, and it’ll be up to public health officials and those of us working in this to still convey that this isn’t completely over.” — Jen Kates, Kaiser Family Foundation senior vice president, to NPR
There aren’t nearly enough supports for the medically vulnerable to rationalize ending the emergency
“What policies have been put in place to protect the most vulnerable? What advances have been made in paid sick/family leave/insurance? What have policymakers learned to ensure this never happens again? But yet, the public health emergency will be ending.” — Dr. Uché Blackstock, public health expert
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Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Carolyn Kaster/AP, Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Getty Images