The federal government plans to end the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency on Thursday, but most Allegheny County residents will see little, if any, day-to-day change.
The most noticeable differences will be out-of-pocket health care costs: For some people, the vaccines may no longer be free, and many will have to pay for COVID-19 tests. Also, there are administrative changes in how public health data gets collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The medical concerns that come with a COVID-19 infection have significantly diminished since March 2020, when Allegheny County entered its first lockdown. Most county residents have probably recovered from a COVID-19 infection at this point, and the majority have been vaccinated, so people’s immune systems are now more capable of handling the virus.
COVID-19 is less likely to cause the massive levels of severe illness and chaos that permeated the first couple of years of the pandemic.
“Right now, it looks like it has shifted to an endemic phase to the average person,” said UPMC chief medical officer Dr. Donald Yealy. “The virus is still here, but it’s not the same individual threat to everybody that it once was.”
UPMC stopped requiring everyone to mask at most of its facilities at the beginning of last week, though the precaution will continue in clinical settings where there are significant numbers of patients who are at risk for serious COVID-19 complications. Allegheny Health Network made similar changes in April. It’s a striking turn of the page when considering that during the first two winters of the pandemic, the virus spread so quickly that it threatened to overwhelm both medical systems.
“At the hospitals, we’ve been seeing a decrease in severity and a decrease in the need for resources to care for people with severe COVID because it’s become less and less severe,” said Dr. Don Whiting, AHN’s chief medical officer.
Yealy and Whiting stress people should get vaccinated and take precautions if they’re feeling ill, particularly because a COVID-19 infection can kill someone who is elderly or immunocompromised. That’s the measured approach that Dr. Barbara Nightingale of the Allegheny County Health Department is taking: She wore a mask to the office on Friday after a COVID-19 exposure.
But as the reminders and precautions of COVID-19 become less constant, Nightingale worries that people will assume the virus is no longer circulating: “We’re going to be dealing with it for a long time, I would imagine.”