WASHINGTON — Even though the Biden administration is ending its highest-profile Covid-19 emergency declaration next month, it’s still going to hold on to some pandemic-era powers.
The Department of Health and Human Services gave governors a heads-up on Friday that it is planning to keep pharmacists’ ability to administer Covid-19 and flu vaccines past the end of the public health emergency.
The legal definition of the Covid-19 emergency is a complex web of different laws that control different areas of the pandemic response. The White House and HHS are in the process of winding those powers down, but they all operate separately from another.
“While COVID-19 is not over, we are in a position to end the emergency phase of our response because of the Administration’s whole-of-government approach to combatting the virus,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra wrote in a letter to governors.
While the Covid-19 public health emergency will end on May 11, HHS is choosing to extend some powers related to a separate law called the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, which offers extra protections to companies and providers making, distributing, and administering medicines and vaccines in times of emergency.
The rules that let pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and pharmacy interns give Covid-19 vaccines and tests and seasonal flu vaccines will stay in place through December 2024, the letter says. The White House’s “Test to Treat” program that allows pharmacists to test people for Covid-19 and prescribe the antiviral Paxlovid will also continue.
Normally, pharmacists have the ability to administer some vaccines, but the details of which products they can give patients vary from state to state. HHS’ declaration ensures that the policy will be uniform, at least for the next two years.
However, HHS is also letting some emergency flexibilities expire, since vaccines and treatments will soon be available through the normal health care system instead of being bought by the government directly.
Providers that are retired and medical students will no longer be able to administer vaccines, and pharmacists will have to be licensed in the states that they are administering the shots. There was a time that these providers may have been needed to staff mass vaccination sites during the height of the Biden administration’s vaccination push, but that time has largely passed, an administration official said.
It’s unclear when the next wave of Covid-19 vaccinations will be recommended, as the Food and Drug Administration has not yet officially announced its plans for recommending another round of booster shots.
The HHS notice on Friday doesn’t have any bearing on emergency use authorizations for vaccines or treatments, the administration official said.
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