Covid-19 vaccines, testing, and treatments will no longer be free, as the Public Health Emergency (PHE) expired on Jan. 11, even as the U.S. faces down a more infectious new subvariant XBB 1.5.

“It can evade antibodies better and infect human lung tissue easier than earlier strains,” said Dr. Ben Neuman, chief virologist of the Global Health Research Complex, Texas A&M, at an Ethnic Media Services news briefing Jan. 6. “Anyone who’s telling you that covid is over is misinformed.” 

Americans have returned to work and resumed their lives as if the pandemic is over, noted Dr. Oliver Brooks, chief medical officer at Watts Healthcare. Many people have refused vaccines and stopped wearing masks.

Brooks treats covid patients and talks to them about vaccine confidence, vaccine convenience and vaccine complacency. He says public health messaging has failed to address these “three Cs.”

He noted that only 15% of the U.S. population has received the updated, bivalent booster. Only one-third of older adults, who are most at risk of dying from covid, have taken the updated booster. And there is a very low percentage of fully vaccinated children, as parents hold off because of fears based on misinformation.

“It’s our job to get the community vaccinated. So when I hear we’re not getting vaccinated anymore, to me that’s just a challenge. I can’t stop,” said Brooks.  “If you get vaccinated you are not only protecting yourself but also your community.”

With the end of the PHE, people enrolled in private insurance and the Affordable Care Act will once again have to pay co-pays for testing, vaccines, and treatments in the same manner they did before PHE. 

An estimated 27.5 million people in the U.S. are uninsured: they will have to pay for the full price for testing, vaccines, and treatments.

“In the new budget that just passed, the federal budget allows states to disenroll people from Medicaid at the end of the first quarter of 2023. When that happens, people can lose their Medicaid coverage which provides access to vaccines and treatments,” said Jill Rosenthal, director of Public Health Policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP.)

“So once again, there is disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities,” she stated.

Some states, including California and Rhode Island, are looking at ways that they can automatically enroll people who are going to lose Medicaid coverage into low-cost marketplace plans. 

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