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California’s COVID Emergency Ends Today, While LA County Sets Its Deadline

A pop-up tent covers an area where masked health care workers are seated in scrubs and white coats.
Health care workers check in for their COVID-19 vaccines at UC Irvine Health Center.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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California’s coronavirus emergency declaration expires today, Feb. 28, almost three years after it began. It allowed Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact almost 600 pandemic-related state executive orders suspending or changing laws to fight the virus.

The emergency declaration helped California hospitals get through huge numbers of patients by permitting facilities to temporarily expand treatment spaces (including in hospital gift shops) and allowed hospital administrators to hire workers from out of state to cope with staffing shortages. The remaining 27 orders still in place expire today.

LA County’s COVID emergency ends March 31

Citing the evolution of the pandemic and the expiration of the state's emergency health order, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to end the county’s COVID-19 emergency health order on March 31, 2023, just over three years after it went into effect.

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“At the height of the pandemic, our emergency orders allowed us to stand up Project Room Key locations, set up mass testing sites at closed malls and huge drive-thru vaccine sites. We fast tracked the outdoor dining policy and deployed county staff to distribute food to people who couldn't get out to buy groceries, ” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who co-authored the motion.

“COVID is still with us, but it is no longer an emergency,” Hahn added.

The move triggers a review of local public health officer orders which were put in place under the emergency authorization. The L.A. County Department of Public Health, Health Services and the Department of Social Services must complete the review by the end of March. The departments will report back to the board with a list of orders still in play, such as mobile vaccine vans.

“There's four weeks for our county departments to prepare and talk to the public about how county business will continue after the declared emergency is over … I think there were things that the local emergency allowed county departments to do which in talking to us going forward, we'll see if there still makes sense, to continue to allow some flexibility,” Hahn said.

Local health officers such as L.A. County’s Dr. Muntu Davis retain some authority under their regular practice guidelines to issue public health officer orders to prevent the spread of a communicable disease without an emergency declaration.

“If there was an outbreak, for example, at a health care facility, our health officer could go ahead and issue an order in that healthcare facility mandating that everybody wear a mask,” said Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer at a press conference in February.

“They would do that under their authority to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. That has nothing to do with needing an emergency.”

Ferrer said she was in favor of ending the county’s pandemic emergency declaration.

Pandemic-related eviction safeguards are also set to expire at the end of March. Low-income tenants across L.A. County who can’t pay rent due to hardships brought on by the pandemic were scheduled to lose eviction protections after Jan. 31, but the Board of Supervisors passed a two-month extension. The new March 31 deadline could leave an estimated 246,000 households in the region with past-due rent vulnerable to eviction if they can’t pay their April rent on time.

Tenant rights in L.A. will not fully go back to “normal” on April 1. Pandemic-era rules could soon go away, but new local protections are taking their place.

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The sunsetting of the emergency declarations reflects a shift in how officials are approaching the pandemic. We haven’t seen the winter spike this season as in years past. Also, cases and hospitalizations are stable.

Still, about 1,000 cases were reported each day in L.A. County last week, though with at-home testing that number is certainly an undercount. About 109 people are hospitalized each day with COVID-19 in the county. The coronavirus is still killing about 22 people per day in California, with 15 of them in L.A. County per day.

What will change in LA?

Los Angeles County sites will continue to provide vaccines, therapeutics and test kits for free to those who are uninsured and underinsured "as long as our supplies last," according to County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

"We anticipate no changes to the distribution of vaccines and therapeutics through the next few months," she said in an email, adding that the county is "hoping that this will be true as well for COVID tests, although our supply is more limited."

The majority of funding for COVID-19 testing sites also ends today. Many are shutting down, and county officials still need to decide if they should fill the federal and state funding gaps to keep them open.

“There'll be some stuff that shifts to the health care stream,” said Dr. Muntu Davis, county health officer. “That’s the shift that we have to do, while at the same time, trying to maintain what we need for those who are uninsured or underinsured to ensure that they get that as well.”

“I do think it’s a question of, if this is in the private industry, how much does it cost and do we have the funding to pay for it?,” added Davis.

A slide explaining the differences between federal and state public health emergencies.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Dept. of Public Health)

What happens when the federal public health emergency expires?

Federal funding for COVID-19 tests and treatments will dry up after the national public health emergency ends on May 11. That could make it difficult for California residents without insurance to get low-cost tests and shots.

In a Twitter thread in January, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha wrote that the change won’t happen immediately.

“On May 12, you can still walk into a pharmacy and get your bivalent vaccine for free,” he wrote.

Eventually, “we will transition from U.S. government-distributed vaccines and treatments to those purchased through the regular healthcare system, the way we do for every other vaccine and treatment,” Jha said.

As long as federally purchased vaccines last, COVID-19 vaccines will remain free to all people, regardless of insurance coverage. That means for now, people aged 6 months and older can still get free COVID vaccines and the updated booster. 

“Over the next few months, we'll be working very hard with our many partners in L.A. County to make sure that those who are uninsured or underinsured, retain access to these life-saving tools and that everyone in the county has easy access to the vaccines,” said Ferrer on Thursday.

Importantly, the Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests will remain in effect. They are tied to a separate emergency declaration, not the public health emergency that ends in May.

What if I have health insurance?

California residents with private health insurance or those enrolled in Medi-Cal will still be able to access vaccines, tests and treatments from a licensed provider without any out-of-pocket costs until Nov. 11. After that, insured people may be charged for those services if they go through an out-of-network provider.

A line graph showing L.A. County's cumulative COVID-19 cases and deaths in the millions since the pandemic began in 2020.
L.A. County's cumulative known COVID-19 cases now tops 3.7 million since the pandemic began in 2020.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Dept. of Public Health)

After the federal emergency ends in May, people with health insurance will lose access to the eight free at-home antigen tests they were eligible for each month, though some insurers may choose to cover them.

Other local changes

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously ended COVID-19 testing requirements for unvaccinated city employees in February. The vaccine mandate for all city employees remains in effect.

Previously unvaccinated L.A. city employees needed an exemption and had to undergo weekly testing. The resolution says they'll be reimbursed for their time and money spent following the requirements.

Due to the changing nature of the virus, the resolution says the testing requirement could be reinstated in the future.

Masks in health clinics stay on … for now

The current masking requirement in health care and long-term care facilities “is not dependent on the state of emergency timeline,” according to a statement by the California Department of Public Health. 

It’s unclear when CDPH will roll it back, or how much warning they’ll give high-risk patients for whom a COVID-19 infection could spell medical disaster.

What else could stay?

Gov. Newsom is seeking legislative approval to keep two other emergency provisions. One would allow nurses to continue to dispense COVID-19 medications such as Paxlovid, while another would allow lab workers to process COVID-19 tests on their own.

LAist housing reporter David Wagner contributed to this report.

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