Washington and local health leaders plan to continue to provide COVID-19 testing supplies and services after the twin national COVID emergencies end in May.
The Washington State Department of Health will continue working with federal and local agencies, tribes and community partners to support equitable access to testing supplies and services, said Raechel Sims, a spokesperson at the Department of Health, in an email.
At a Feb. 3 vaccine clinic, volunteers stressed how important community vaccine events have been since shots became available.
Public Health – Seattle & King County hosted the vaccine community clinic in partnership with Villa Comunitaria, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting the Latino community.
Othello Station Pharmacy, an independent and Black-owned pharmacy in King County, has hosted vaccine clinics since COVID vaccines became available to the public, said Dr. Ahmed Ali, a pharmacist and owner of the pharmacy.
Despite the federal emergencies ending, “we need to make sure folks in King County understand that, in some places, you can still walk in to get a vaccine,” said Ali, who volunteered at Friday’s clinic. He emphasized this applies to all vaccines, whether it’s COVID or flu vaccines, routine vaccines or travel vaccines.
Now, the costs of COVID vaccines are covered, including for those uninsured or undocumented.
Federal grant support is projected well beyond May 2023, Sims said, and the Legislature is considering additional money for state testing programs and projects, such as community-based testing sites and supplies for vulnerable people, homeless shelters, independent pharmacies, fire and emergency services agencies, agricultural workers and K-12 schools.
“Federally implemented testing access via ICATT pharmacy testing, LTS Testing Kiosks and federally qualified food bank networks is also expected to continue beyond May 2023,” Sims said.
The DOH also anticipates a transition between the end of the federal emergencies and when COVID vaccines are commercially available like other vaccines.
During this period, “partners across the state will continue to provide COVID-19 vaccines at no cost to anyone in Washington, and we encourage everyone who is eligible to consider receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and bivalent booster,” Sims said.
While DOH said it would work with partners to “support equitable access” to testing supplies, it is not clear whether free at-home tests from the state will continue.
President Joe Biden informed Congress on Monday that the national emergency and public health emergency declarations will end May 11. That would formally restructure the federal coronavirus response to treat the virus as an endemic threat to public health that can be managed through state and local agencies.
As of Feb. 1, about 60 cases of COVID were reported per 100,000 King County residents, according to the county’s COVID dashboard.
In Snohomish County, about 70 cases of COVID were reported per 100,000 as of Jan. 28, according to the county’s COVID dashboard.
Both counties’ community levels are low.
This month, Othello Station Pharmacy has 21 vaccine events planned, “but we used to have three or four events in a day at the height of the pandemic,” Ali said.
“We were actually the very first vaccine event at Brighton Senior Home, which is predominantly a senior home for African Americans in Southeast Seattle,” he said, “and that was three days after the vaccines were available.”
Also volunteering at the clinic was Brenda Gonzalez, a Healthy Community Program coordinator at Villa Comunitaria. She also noticed a decline in interest of people getting vaccinations, “but we’re still doing the best we can to provide this resource and make it accessible.”
Villa Comunitaria developed its Healthy Community Program in response to the pandemic, Gonzalez said, “and we communicate in Spanish and target the Latino community, especially the undocumented community because there’s a lot of barriers around people not being able to go to a provider to get their vaccine.”
In addition to shots, the community vaccine clinic provided free COVID testing kits and resources.
Each time communities or organizations request vaccines from Public Health, Othello Station Pharmacy volunteers to help distribute vaccines. The pharmacy has also helped provide vaccines at schools in central and southeast Seattle through a partnership with Seattle Public Schools, Ali said.
The costs of COVID vaccines are expected to skyrocket once the government stops buying them, with Pfizer saying it will charge as much as $130 per dose once the vaccines hit the commercial market. Free at-home COVID tests from the federal government will also come to an end, and hospitals will not get extra payments for treating COVID patients.
Legislators extended for another two years telehealth options that were introduced as COVID hit, leading health care systems across the country to regularly deliver care by phone or computer.
“The expiration of the federal coronavirus public health emergency in May is an administrative measure and does not mean the pandemic is over,” Sharon Bogan, a Public Health – Seattle & King County spokesperson, wrote in an email.
“We continue to be vigilant, even as we enter the latest phase of this pandemic with lower mortality.”
Bogan said it will likely take time to understand how ending the federal emergencies will affect access to COVID test kits, treatment and vaccinations, but said health leaders are “particularly concerned” about ending free testing kits.
“Accessibility is key to make sure all of us are protected … If people don’t have access, then it just becomes another missed opportunity for Public Health to do what it needs to do,” Ali said.
The ending of the federal emergencies will also impact “a lot of specific populations,” Ali added. “COVID had a significant impact in black and brown communities, and I think there will be a ripple effect.”
Given what Bogan, the Public Health – Seattle & King County spokesperson, called a “patchwork” of a federal public health system, shrinking funding also threatens adequate COVID preparedness and response.
This lack of sustained funding will affect the ability to develop the next generation of vaccines, improve indoor air quality and manufacture personal protective equipment.
“We will be limited in our ability to enhance the critical work with communities to build trust and decrease the impact of health disparities, not only for COVID-19 disease, but for many health conditions that also result in much worse outcomes for certain groups,” Bogan said.
To find a vaccine appointment in Washington, go to vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov.