US Ends COVID-19 Public Health Emergency; WHO Signals End As Well

The US government ended the COVID-19 national and public health emergency declarations as of May 11, 2023, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) although both the US Department of Health and Human Services and WHO say COVID-19 is still an ongoing public health priority.  

The White House had announced in late January (January 2023) its intention to end the national and public health emergency declarations for COVID-19 on May 11, and with the end of the declaration, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlined that most tools, such as vaccines, treatments, and testing, will remain available, but some tools, such as certain data sources and reporting, will change. 

The CDC said that access to COVID-19 vaccines will generally not be affected for now. The US government is currently distributing free COVID-19 vaccines for all adults and children. Additionally, it said that medication to prevent severe COVID-19 will remain available for free while supplies last. After that, the price will be determined by the medication manufacturer and an individual’s health insurance coverage. With regard to testing, with the end of the emergencies, COVID-19 at-home tests may not be covered by insurance. Insurance companies will no longer be required to waive costs or provide free COVID-19 tests. 

In terms of data reporting, the CDC will no longer track COVID-19 case and death data on the COVID Data Tracker. Instead, a new metric, the percent of deaths that are COVID-19-associated, and other metrics from the National Vital Statistics System will be reported weekly.    

Separately, WHO has declared that COVID-19 is now an established and ongoing health issue but that it no longer constitutes a PHEIC.  

The WHO Director-General will convene an International Health Regulations (IHR) Review Committee to advise on standing recommendations for the long-term management of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, taking into account WHO’s 2023–2025 COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. In addition, member states of WHO are currently negotiating the Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Accord, discussing amendments to the International Health Regulations, and considering 10 proposals to strengthen the Global Architecture for Health Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Resilience.  

In addition, WHO outlined temporary recommendations for its State Parties as outlined below. 

Sustain the national capacity gains and prepare for future events. WHO says that States Parties should consider how to improve country readiness for future outbreaks. In alignment with WHO guidance, States Parties should update respiratory pathogen pandemic preparedness plans incorporating learnings from national and sub-national reviews. In addition, WHO recommends that States Parties should continue to restore health programs adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Integrate COVID-19 vaccination into life-course vaccination programs. WHO recommends that States Parties should maintain efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination coverage for all people in high-priority groups (as defined by the SAGE Roadmap of April 2023) with WHO recommending vaccines continue to actively address vaccine acceptance and demand issues with communities.   

Bring together information from diverse respiratory pathogen surveillance data sources to allow for a comprehensive situational awareness. WHO recommends that States Parties should maintain reporting of mortality and morbidity data as well as variant surveillance information to WHO. Surveillance should incorporate information from an appropriate mix of representative sentinel populations, event-based surveillance, human wastewater surveillance, sero-surveillance, and surveillance of selected animal populations known to be at risk of SARS-COV-2. In addition, WHO recommends that States Parties should leverage the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System and support the establishment of the WHO Global Coronavirus Laboratory Network.   

Prepare for medical countermeasures to be authorized within national regulatory frameworks to ensure long-term availability and supply. WHO recommends that States Parties should strengthen their regulatory authorities to support long-term authorization and use of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics.   

Continue to work with communities and their leaders to achieve strong, resilient, and inclusive risk communications and community engagement (RCCE) and infodemic management programs. WHO recommends that State Parties should adapt RCCE and infodemic management strategies and interventions to local contexts. 

Continue to lift COVID-19 international travel-related health measures, WHO recommends, based on risk assessments, and to not require any proof of vaccination against COVID-19 as a prerequisite for international travel.   

Continue to support research, WHO recommends, to improve vaccines that reduce transmission and have broad applicability; to understand the full spectrum, incidence, and impact of post-COVID-19 conditions and the evolution of SARS-COV-2 in immunocompromised populations as well as to develop relevant integrated care pathways. 

Source: US Department of Health and Human Services, The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization