With the stroke of a pen, New Mexico’s governor and state health department determined the protections afforded under the public health emergency are no longer needed, including free SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and tests.
They announced on Friday afternoon that the state’s public health emergency for COVID-19 will end on March 31, part of what state and federal officials are calling an “unwinding” of the pandemic response. The federal government’s health emergency is set to expire May 11.
“Today’s renewal of the COVID-19 executive order will be the final extension,” Department of Health spokesperson Jodi McGinnis-Porter wrote in a news release published by the governor’s office. “It will remain in effect until March 31, 2023, and then will be allowed to expire.”
The end of the state’s formal public health emergency does not mean that the pandemic itself is over, no longer a problem, not making New Mexicans sick, hospitalizing them, making them miss school or work, or killing them.
The World Health Organization said at the end of January that the COVID pandemic remains a “public health emergency of international concern,” and that COVID-19 itself “remains a dangerous infectious disease with the capacity to cause substantial damage to health and health systems.”
Over 500 people in the U.S. are dying from COVID each day, according to state and local health agencies; official counts are widely acknowledged to be underestimates.
More than 28,000 people have died of COVID in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, through March 3, according to Johns Hopkins University. At least 1.1 million people have died from COVID in the U.S. so far.
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The end of the public health emergency does mean that vaccines, treatments and tests will no longer be free once New Mexico uses all of the inventory provided by the federal government.
The bivalent booster rate still hasn’t reached 20% in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I urge all New Mexicans, and particularly those who are older or who have compromised immune systems, to get vaccinated or get their booster shots if they have not done so already,” Lujan Grisham said.
The news release did not specify, and McGinnis-Porter did not answer when asked on Friday, how the hundreds of thousands of uninsured New Mexicans would be able to afford the vaccines that the governor is asking them to get when the free shots are no longer an option.
In a written statement, McGinnis-Porter said the state’s vaccine supply from the federal government is not depleted. She did not answer questions about how the state will proceed when that inventory is gone and private insurance does or does not take over, depending on the payer.
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While COVID vaccines and treatments remain free for now, McGinnis-Porter said the “availability, access and costs” of COVID vaccines “are determined by the supply of federally purchased vaccines, not the public health emergency.”
However, the public health emergency was what allowed COVID vaccines, treatments and tests to be free in the first place. The New Mexico Office of the Superintendent of Insurance reminded insurance companies of this fact in a March 2021 bulletin, warning them that charging people for them is illegal during the public health emergency.
White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said recently the country will run out of free vaccines and treatments “some time over the summer, into the early fall,” however, any estimate is only a projection.
When the federal supply of vaccines runs out and the public health emergency ends, for example, uninsured New Mexicans will be paying out of pocket for their boosters, or relying on a community health center for them.
New Mexicans with private insurance, who get their booster in their insurance company’s network, will get it for free under the CARES Act. Out of network, vaccines will not be required to be free.
For insured New Mexicans trying to get COVID treatment or testing, it’s up to that insurance company whether or not they cover it, or if there’s a copay and how much. That would also depend on what pharmacy they visit.
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McGinnis-Porter also did not answer in her written statement a question about whether New Mexico is following the federal government’s lead, by moving COVID treatments and vaccines to the private market.
Jha said last August the federal government would stop buying vaccines, treatments and tests for COVID-19 and instead leave people to buy them from the private market.
“My hope is that in 2023, you’re going to see the commercialization of almost all of these products,” Jha said at an event held by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Because McGinnis-Porter did not answer, it remains unclear whether any state officials have spoken with any private health care companies in the state to determine how much New Mexicans will pay for vaccines and treatment going forward.