Biden to end Covid health emergency declarations in May
The Biden administration will end the Covid-19 national and public health emergencies on May 11, the White House said Monday in a major step meant to signal that the crisis era of the pandemic is over.
The move would restructure the federal government’s coronavirus response and unwind a sprawling set of flexibilities put in place nearly three years ago that paved the way for free Covid treatments and tests. The White House disclosed its plan in response to two House Republican measures aimed at immediately ending the emergencies, calling those proposals “a grave disservice to the American people.”
“This wind-down would align with the Administration’s previous commitments to give at least 60 days’ notice prior to termination of the PHE,” the White House said in its statement of policy.
Lifting the health emergency could also mean the abrupt termination of Title 42, a health policy reinstated during the Trump administration in March 2020 at the beginning of the Covid pandemic and used to shut down the southern border. The authority gave border officials the ability to rapidly “expel” migrants without a chance to seek U.S. asylum.
The Biden administration’s attempts to end Title 42 have been repeatedly blocked by the courts, most recently with the Supreme Court's decision to temporarily keep the policy in place. While a ruling by the high court isn't expected until June, the White House's move to end the declaration could lead to the case being dismissed as moot.
The announcement Monday, which came with little warning, surprised lawmakers and industry officials, raising concerns over how the administration plans to unwind the myriad of options the emergency declarations have provided over the last three years.
“I’ve yet to hear, 'Okay, here is the rationale,'” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the chamber's health committee. “I’m sure that they have one, I just haven’t heard it.”
The expiration of emergencies also signals a shift in the administration’s approach to the southern border amid growing scrutiny from House Republicans over its immigration policies. Title 42, which was originally reinstated during the Trump administration in March 2020, has given federal border officials the ability to rapidly “expel” migrants without a chance to seek U.S. asylum.
A senior administration official defended the decision making, telling POLITICO that “we’re committed to having a smooth, coordinated rollout and we believe today’s announcement does just that.”
“This decision is based on what is best for the health of our country at this time,” the senior official said. “We’re in a pretty good place in the pandemic, we’ve come through the winter, cases are down dramatically from where they were the past two winters.”
But others familiar with the matter said the administration had originally discussed announcing its May 11 end date for the emergencies next week, as it approached a Feb. 11 deadline for giving stakeholders advance notice.
The disclosure was accelerated after it became clear that House Republicans planned to push measures aimed at ending the emergencies, and that some Democratic lawmakers might vote for them absent further clarity from the administration on its official end date.
Biden health officials have spent the last several months preparing for the complex unwinding of the health emergencies, which will eventually involve shifting responsibility for the distribution of most vaccines and treatments to the private market.
The process comes as most Americans have returned to their every day lives, and as federal funding for the White House's Covid response dried up in the face of Republican opposition.
Myah Ward and David Lim contributed to this report.