President Biden told Congress on Monday that he will end the national emergencies to combat the coronavirus outbreak on May 11, a move that will restructure the federal government’s response to the pandemic nearly three years after the virus first arrived in the United States.
The expiration of the orders marks a new phase of the pandemic response, as U.S. officials prepare to remove some of the flexibilities that were instituted during the earliest and most dire days of the pandemic. Since then, most Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus and life has largely returned to normal. Still, an average of more than 500 Americans are dying every day from the virus.
In 2020, the Trump administration declared both a national emergency and a public health emergency, which are set to expire on March 1 and April 11, respectively. In a notice to Congress on Monday, the White House said it wants to briefly extend both emergency declarations before terminating them May 11.
The federal government has renewed the public health emergency every 90 days since it was first declared, and administration officials had previously said they would give 60 days’ notice before ending the public health emergency.
“An abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans,” the White House said in a statement Monday.
Among the most notable effects of ending the state of emergency, according to the White House, would be the termination of Title 42, a public health measure that has limited the inflow of migrants at the border. The Biden administration has attempted to end Title 42, but that action has been held up in court. An administration official said because Title 42 is a public health order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined there would no longer be a need for the measure once the coronavirus no longer presented a public health emergency.
But some House Republicans lambasted the White House statement on Monday, arguing that Title 42 is not tied to the public health emergency and exists at the discretion of the president. Many in the GOP are in favor of keeping the Title 42 restrictions, saying that health concerns provide reasonable grounds for limiting immigration.
“Any decision to end Title 42 is not tied to the PHE,” Christopher Krepich, a spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement referring to the public health emergency. “President Biden alone will be responsible for the decision to end Title 42.”
In addition, the emergency declaration allowed the Medicaid program to provide additional funding so tens of millions of beneficiaries could retain their Medicaid payments during the pandemic. Congress has enacted a wind-down of that effort, and the White House argued that ending it abruptly would cause chaos and difficulty for the recipients.
“Due to this uncertainty, tens of millions of Americans could be at risk of abruptly losing their health insurance, and states could be at risk of losing billions of dollars in funding,” the White House said.
Even if the House were to vote to end the emergencies right away, the Democratic-led Senate would be unlikely to consider such a move. Nonetheless, the White House took the moment to announce its own intention to conclude the emergencies, albeit in a gradual way.
In anticipation of the ending of the public health emergency, Congress has already taken action to ease some of the impact of the move.
Congress extended telehealth benefits through 2024, for example. Lawmakers also plugged a hole in the coverage for Paxlovid, the antiviral pill used to treat covid-19, by allowing Medicare to cover oral antiviral drugs even if they are under an emergency use authorization through the end of 2024.
Administration officials say providing extra time before the emergency orders lapse will help health systems and medical providers better prepare for the changes. The emergency status provided additional flexibility for health providers in a variety of areas, including hospital bed capacity and billing procedures, and if those come to an end the providers will have to make adjustments.
The pandemic defined much of the first year of Biden’s presidency, as his administration launched the largest vaccine campaign in American history and was forced to adapt to new and highly infectious variants. Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 1 million Americans have died of the virus.
In recent months, many Americans have returned to something close to normal, setting aside their masks and attending the large gatherings that were eliminated during the height of the pandemic. But the polarizing debate over the pandemic continues to simmer, especially at moments when vaccine uptake surges or a new variant emerges.
Many Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, insisted from the beginning that the threat of the virus was overblown, despite the death toll.
More recently, they have argued that the most acute phases of the pandemic are over and have assailed Biden’s ongoing response. They have criticized his administration’s mask and vaccine mandates, and have persistently called for an end to the federal government’s emergency powers, which they tend to portray as a power grab by Washington. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) scheduled a slew of votes this week aimed at undoing the emergencies.
“There is no ongoing covid-19 emergency to justify the continuation of the national emergency declaration,” Rep Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) said in a statement after introducing a resolution to end the declaration. “Cases are down and most Americans have returned to a pre-pandemic normalcy. This hardly sounds like a country under a national emergency.”
After the White House signaled it would let the emergency orders lapse, Republicans took a victory lap and said the president caved to pressure from the GOP.
“I am glad to see the White House is following the lead of House Republicans and announcing they plan to finally end the Public Health Emergency and the Covid Emergency Declaration, on the heels of our announcement last week that we will vote this week to immediately end this outdated declaration,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a statement. “Rather than waiting until May 11, the Biden administration should join us now in immediately ending this declaration.”
The ongoing debate over vaccinations, masks, school closures and other coronavirus measures will probably figure into the upcoming presidential election, as potential Republican candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signal they will seize on the issue.
The end of the public health emergency will coincide with the end of other federal government responses, including vaccine, treatment and test provisions that have been provided free to the public.
For most people with private or public insurance, vaccinations will continue to be free even after the supply purchased by the federal government runs out, under provisions of the Affordable Care Act and other legislation that addressed Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries.
States were given an option to provide temporary Medicaid coverage for vaccinations, testing and treatment to the uninsured, receiving a 100 percent federal match to cover those costs. Some states did so, but “that’s going to go away [when the public health emergency ends],” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Uninsured people who had access through that temporary option won’t have that anymore.”
Kates added: “To me, that’s the biggest issue for the general public to think about. The uninsured and underinsured have no guaranteed access to covid vaccines, tests or treatments.”
The White House cited what it said would be other problems caused by ending the emergency abruptly. Hospitals and nursing homes that have relied on flexibilities enabled by the emergency declarations would be “plunged into chaos” without adequate time to retrain staff and establish new billing processes.
Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.
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