US extends COVID public health emergency

The United States will keep in place the public health emergency status of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing millions of Americans to keep receiving free tests, vaccines and treatments.

The possibility of a winter surge in COVID cases and the need for more time to transition out of the public health emergency to a private market contributed to the decision not to end the emergency status in January, a Biden administration official said on Friday.

The public health emergency was initially declared in January 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began, and has been renewed each quarter since for 90 days.

But the government in August began signalling it planned to let it expire in January.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has promised to give states 60 days' notice before letting the emergency expire, which would have been on Friday if it did not plan on renewing it again in January.

Health experts believe the country will see a COVID-19 surge this winter, an official said.

"We may be in the middle of one in January," he said.

"That is not the moment you want to pull down the public health emergency."

Daily US cases are down to an average of almost 41,300 as of November 9 but an average of 335 people a day are still dying from COVID-19, according to the latest US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Daily US cases are projected to rise slowly to almost 70,000 by February, driven by students returning to schools and cold weather-related indoor gatherings, the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said in an October 21 analysis.

Deaths are forecast to remain at current levels.

The official said a lot of work remained to be done for the transition out of the public health emergency.

The government has been paying for COVID-19 vaccines, some tests and certain treatments, as well as other care under the public health emergency declaration.

When the emergency expires, the government will begin to transfer COVID-19 health care to private insurance and government health plans.

Health officials held large meetings with insurers and drug makers about moving sales and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to the private sector in August and October but none have been publicly announced since.

Most Americans have government-backed or private health insurance and are expected to pay for COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, though they will likely incur out-of-pocket costs for tests and treatments.

Uninsured children will also continue to get free vaccines but it is unclear how they and some 25 million uninsured adults will avoid paying the full cost of tests and treatments and how those adults will get vaccines.