The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Wednesday officially renewed the ongoing public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic amid concerns over a more transmissible viral mutation and broad pandemic fatigue.
The announcement by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra marks the 12th renewal of the COVID-19 public health emergency, which was first declared by former HHS Secretary Alex Azar in January of 2020.
Each public health emergency declaration lasts for 90 days before expiring or getting renewed. While it is not required by any laws or department rules, Becerra has publicly committed to giving state governments and health care stakeholders a 60-day notice if plans to allow the declaration to expire.
The absence of a notice in mid-November was understood to be a tacit acknowledgement that the public health emergency would be renewed.
“The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency remains in effect, and as HHS committed to earlier, we will provide a 60-day notice to states before any possible termination or expiration,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.
When the public health emergency declaration was last renewed, health officials were concerned that another winter surge in cases could occur. While cases have risen somewhat in the past few weeks, a major surge like those observed in 2021 and 2020 has not yet come to pass.
“We have seen COVID infections increase in prior winters, and it does not have to be that way this year. We now have the updated COVID-19 bivalent vaccine to protect against the Omicron strain. Our message is simple: Don’t wait. Get an updated COVID-19 vaccine this winter. It’s safe and effective,” the spokesperson added.
This renewal comes as a more transmissible COVID-19 omicron subvariant makes its way across the Northeast. XBB.1.5, which accounts for more than 70 percent of cases in the Northeast and about 28 percent nationwide, is believed to be the most transmissible subvariant of omicron to have been detected so far, though whether it causes more severe illness than previous subvariants is yet to be determined.
Earlier this week, Politico reported that the Biden administration was considering making this most recent declaration the final renewal of the public health emergency. An end to the COVID-19 public health emergency would signal a major shift for the Biden administration, which has worked under the declaration since day one.
An administration official told The Hill, “The decision to terminate the COVID [public health emergency] will be made by the HHS Secretary based on the best available data and science. Any suggestion that a specific end date has been established is untrue.”