With federal public health emergency ending, Covid tests and vaccines may now come at a cost

Fairfax County nurse holds a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

After more than three years, COVID-19 will officially cease to be a federal public health emergency in the U.S. tomorrow (Thursday), bringing an end to the days of free testing and vaccinations.

The Fairfax County Health Department will still provide free services by appointment to people who don’t have insurance or otherwise can’t pay, but private insurance companies and health providers will be allowed to start billing patients, the department explained in a May 5 announcement.

Since they’re considered “preventative care,” vaccines will largely be covered by private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid without a co-pay. But coverage for both at-home and lab tests will depend on individual insurers, and people without insurance will be charged for vaccinations, according to the health department.

The FCHD will end its COVID-19 call center on May 19, so appointments for its free clinics can be made after that date by calling 703-246-7100.

Other options for uninsured individuals include organizations like food banks, homeless services providers and federally qualified health centers that can offer free testing through July 2024, thanks to federal grant programs.

“We encourage anyone who becomes ill with symptoms of COVID or who comes into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID to continue testing to prevent the further spread of illness,” the health department said.

Federal officials declared COVID-19 a national emergency on Jan. 31, 2020, 11 days after the first case in the U.S. was confirmed. The declaration’s end reflects a shift to treating the disease as endemic, meaning it remains present but not at a level that significantly disrupts most people’s daily lives.

FCHD Deputy Director for Medical Services Dr. Parham Jaberi said in a statement to FFXnow:

The end of the emergency does not signal that COVID is over, but we do feel that it no longer impacts our lives in the way it did over the past three years. The “emergency” enabled resources to quickly address our needs for a coordinated response to help our communities get vaccinated, tested and take necessary actions to limit the spread of the virus. While COVID remains a serious illness for some populations in our community such as older adults, very young children, or those with chronic health conditions, it is less of an overall threat to society.

The World Health Organization announced last Friday (May 5) that Covid is no longer a global health emergency, though worldwide, more than 3,000 deaths have been reported over the past week.

On a local level, Fairfax County terminated its state of emergency for the pandemic on March 1, just under three years since it began.

The Fairfax Health District is now averaging 30 new cases per day for the past week — fewer than at any point in the pandemic other than the summer of 2021, according to local and state data. As a result, the impact of a price tag on people’s willingness to get tested and vaccinated “may be limited,” the FCHD says.

All Fairfax Health District COVID-19 cases, as of March 10, 2023 (via VDH)

However, community members are still advised to stay up to date on their vaccinations, get tested when sick and take other basic precautions like covering their mouth when coughing that help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases.

“New variants and seasonal increases of COVID are still very likely and the best form of prevention against serious impacts of COVID on our communities is to ensure everyone is adequately immunized, especially children, older adults, and those with a chronic health condition,” Jaberi said.

Over 2.8 million Covid vaccine doses have been administered to residents of the Fairfax Health District, which includes Fairfax and Falls Church City. Per county data, 79.8% of people 6 months and older have finished the “primary” series of shots, but just 24.9% have gotten the most recent booster.

In the future, the vaccine will likely be recommended on a regular schedule, like annual flu shots, Jaberi said. However, the exact process will be determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal Drug Administration, which have yet to issue any guidance.

Reflecting on three years of shutdowns, vaccinations, and evolving masking and social distancing expectations, FCHD officials are “cautiously optimistic” that the county will be able to handle future diseases or even Covid variants more quickly and efficiently than when the coronavirus arrived.

“We’ve trained our medical reserve corps; we’ve improved our communications and community partnerships and networks with healthcare providers,” Jaberi said by email. “We’ve enhanced public health surveillance and staff training, and we are better resourced to address communicable disease threats. When the next public health emergency arises, we will also be able to use lessons learned from our pandemic response to make sure we protect the most vulnerable members of our communities.”

As of this morning, the Fairfax Health District had reported a total of 270,000 Covid cases, 5,350 hospitalizations and 1,793 deaths.