Officials offer suggestions amid transition
By Jason Arndt
Federal health officials declared an end to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency this week.
The public health emergency, which had been in place since early 2020, allowed federal and state governments more flexibility to waive or modify certain requirements in multiple areas while infusing funding and resources to local communities to combat the virus.
Resources included free testing, vaccination clinics, and treatment options to prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and death with people who became infected with COVID-19.
But on Thursday, May 11, when the emergency concluded, the available resources will only be available for a limited time until supplies such as vaccines and antiviral treatments become depleted or allowed to expire.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, which offered details of changes in a news release on April 26, case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have shown a significant decline since the late 2021 and early 2022 surge.
Amid the declining case numbers, and end of the public health emergency, the DHS has reportedly been making plans to move away from an emergency response to COVID-19.
“The declaration of a public health emergency helped support Wisconsin’s efforts to combat COVID-19 with resources that saved lives statewide,” DHS Secretary Kirsten Johnson said in a news release. “As the federal public health emergency declaration nears its end, DHS will continue to shift our COVID-19 response operations.”
“However, it is critical that Wisconsinites know this does not mean COVID-19 has gone away. The virus remains a threat to health, and we must continue to care for ourselves and each other.”
While DHS recommends staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations, recognizing level of spread in communities and other precautions, officials said they still plan on working with local leaders and hospital systems on the transition.
“DHS will continue to work with public health partners, including local and tribal health departments, hospital system, and community agencies and advocates as the state and nation transitions from an emergency response to this virus,” Johnson said.
As the state transitions from the public emergency, according to the DHS, officials still plan on monitoring COVID-19 levels.
While local communities have not issued any responses to the recent announcement, such as Racine, Walworth and Kenosha counties, Aurora Health Care offered a statement related to Medicaid coverage.
Aurora Health Care, which oversees hospitals in Burlington and Elkhorn, said Medicaid recipients should check on their coverage because of potential lapses.
“Keeping health coverage current ensures there’s no interruption in care for patients, and it’s important to keep up because small health concerns now can become larger issues later if left unaddressed,” Aurora Health said in a brief statement.
“The end of the COVID Public Health Emergency means that millions of patients are at risk of losing their Medicaid benefits. Medicaid recipients should make sure that their contact information is up-to-date with the Department of Health Services and submit their renewal form immediately after receiving it.”
Aurora Health Care patients with questions can call the group’s help line at 800-326-2250, the statement added.
DHS further elaborated on insurance concerns in a news release.
At the end of the health emergency, many free programs could be reverting to insurance and/or personal payment for services, according to the DHS.
Wisconsin, however, has resources for under- and uninsured people such as programs providing health care for free or at a lower cost.
DHS recommends uninsured, or underinsured residents, look into Forward Health.
“ForwardHealth brings together many Department of Health Services health care and nutrition assistance benefit programs,” according to DHS.
While supplies last
As for vaccines and testing supplies, according to DHS, both items will be available for free until federal inventory becomes depleted.
People with public or private insurance will continue to have access to COVID-19 vaccines based on insurance requirements.
Under some exceptions, meanwhile, people without insurance can still receive a free COVID-19 vaccine through the Bridge Access program.
Depending on insurance coverage, both at-home and PCR testing resources could come at a charge for some Wisconsinites, according to DHS.
Millions helped during pandemic
According to DHS, both local and state programs helped millions of Wisconsinites, who received vaccinations, tests, while municipalities received assistance.
Since 2020, when the pandemic struck, DHS has distributed 15 million tests throughout the state through multiple partnerships ranging from local pharmacies, public health departments, to the Wisconsin National Guard.
More than 3.6 million Wisconsinites, or 61.8% of the total population, completed the vaccine primary series while nearly 1.2 million got the updated COVID-19 booster.
“The successful operation of these programs over the past three years has saved lives, protected health, and helped Wisconsin through the most serious public health emergency of our lifetimes,” Johnson said. “I continue to thank the public health, health care, and emergency response professionals statewide, including the dedicated public servants of DHS, who have worked tirelessly to move us to a new phase of COVID-19 response.”