The impending end of the federal government’s coronavirus public health emergency will mean an end to funds that support the supply of vaccines, tests, masks and health staffing in Montgomery County. County health officials are determining whether and how they will continue providing residents with various COVID-19 services, and the potential budget impact.
For now, health leaders say that millions of dollars in grants from the Maryland Department of Health and other funds should help bridge the gap for administering COVID-19 vaccines, distributing rapid test kits, giving PCR tests and other related services.
President Joe Biden’s administration announced earlier this week that it intends to end the COVID-19 national emergency and public health emergencies by May 11. House Republicans want to terminate those emergencies earlier, but Biden’s Office of Management and Budget opposes that, saying it would have a negative impact on the United States’ health care system, and that tens of millions of Americans could lose their health insurance under Medicaid.
During a Thursday news briefing, County Executive Marc Elrich said the end of the public health emergencies means federal money will no longer reimburse state and local governments for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, along with Medicaid and Medicare benefits for vaccines, testing and treatments.
The county will continue offering test kits and vaccines through June 30, the end of this fiscal year, Elrich said.
“Obviously, a federal declaration is not going to make COVID go away,” Elrich said. “And we’ve already seen COVID morph itself many different times. So we’ll continue to give you updates. Hopefully the updates will be brief and non-alarming.”
Sean O’Donnell, the county’s public health emergency preparedness manager, said that the county helped pay for its vaccine distribution through a $3 million grant from the state Department of Health, via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That should help cover costs through the end of June, he added.
Federal partners are discussing the potential for having an annual COVID-19 booster, similar to the annual flu shot, O’Donnell said. County costs for distributing vaccines should continue to go down in the coming months amid those discussions—the county has already dropped its distribution of vaccines and testing from seven to five days a week, O’Donnell added.
James Bridgers, the county’s chief of public health services, said that it’s still unknown what the impact will be on local hospital staffing—visiting nurses, support staff and other workers—but county officials are already discussing any potential changes in staffing levels with hospital leadership.
Bridgers said those conversations will be important, especially for this upcoming fall and the fall seasons in coming years. It’s unclear if COVID, RSV or other respiratory illnesses will be more dominant, but county health officials need to be prepared, Bridgers added.
Another component that the county needs to be prepared for once the public health emergency ends is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will stop reimbursing the county for rapid test kits and masks, according to Earl Stoddard, an assistant chief administrative officer for the county.
O’Donnell said that the county has around 150,000 rapid test kits in storage, with about 30,000 available for distribution at county libraries. Stoddard said that there are more than 3 million masks for the county to distribute.
Distribution varies depending on demand and time of year, Stoddard said—the fall and winter months, when there has been more spread of viruses in the community, has seen more kits and masks picked up at libraries, he said. During the summer, distribution per week drops from tens of thousands of test kits and masks to thousands, he added.
County health officials will need to evaluate in the fall how to backfill funding for masks and test kits, given that the FEMA reimbursements stop, Stoddard said.
“The cost of [rapid test] kits varies a little bit … but we use the estimate that one box, with two tests, is usually about five bucks a kit, and so it tells you essentially what you’d be talking about,” Stoddard said of some of the costs.