Here’s what McHenry County residents need to know about COVID-19 public health emergency ending

Access to tests, but not vaccines, are among things that will be affected by declaration coming to end

After more than three years, the United States’ public health emergency declaration tied to the COVID-19 pandemic ends Thursday. With it come a number of changes to rules related to Medicare and Medicaid, testing and data.

In McHenry County, health care officials still are determining what it could mean countywide and how many people might be affected.

“We’re trying to figure out what [the declaration going away] looks like,” McHenry County Department of Health spokesperson Lindsey Salvatelli said.

At the Family Health Partnership Clinic in Crystal Lake, a nonprofit that sees about 1,700 underinsured and uninsured patients every year, the expectation is the declaration ending to impact its patient base “quite a bit,” Executive Director Suzanne Hoban said. While insured individuals still will be able to get free boosters and vaccines, the uninsured will lose that ability.

“It’s trying to build a boat while you’re sailing it.”

—  Family Health Partnership Clinic Executive Director Suzanne Hoban on health care gaps related to COVID-19

Hoban said a program was being discussed to help those individuals to still receive COVID-19 care, but nothing has materialized. Despite this, she said she doesn’t blame any entity for the lapse.

“The wheels always move slowly. It’s trying to build a boat while you’re sailing it.”

Mercyhealth, which has a hospital in Harvard and another on the way in Crystal Lake, has seen a higher than normal call volume for patients looking for help getting reenrolled in Medicaid, said Ladd Udy, vice president of value-based care and population health.

The health system is “greatly concerned” about patients losing coverage, particularly when it comes to Medicaid, Udy said. As a result, they are working to do outreach to help with the Medicaid reenrollment process.

Northwestern Medicine, which also operates a number of hospitals and doctors’ offices in McHenry County, said it’s too early to tell how many Medicaid patients could be affected by the declaration ending.

“We are monitoring this closely and asking our Medicaid patients to follow the instructions issued by the Illinois Department of Health Care and Family Services,” spokesperson Jill Edgeworth said in an email.

Northwestern Medicine and the McHenry County Department of Health official both said they don’t have more information at this time, but expect to learn more in the coming days and weeks on how residents and patients are being affected.

“As this continues to unfold, we will support our patients accordingly,” Edgeworth said in an email.

The declaration, originally issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in January 2020, was designed to deal with a variety of expected challenges tied to COVID-19. Some of those challenges included issuing tests and vaccines, keeping up with increased hospital demand and publishing data tied to the pandemic.

In the years since, daily COVID-19 cases are down 92%, while deaths related to the virus have declined by more than 80%, according to Health and Human Services data. Hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 are down nearly 80%, as well.

In the time the vaccines have been available, almost 675 million doses have been issued, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention data as of April 12.

In McHenry County, COVID-19 cases are the lowest they’ve been since the summer of 2021, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data, while hospital admissions remain at a seven-day rolling average of one as of early May.

The declaration set to end on Thursday is different from the one issued by President Donald Trump, which declared COVID-19 a national emergency. That was ended by a joint resolution passed by Congress last month.

Still, the declaration’s end means access to free tests, as well as certain flexibilities to better allow health care facilities to cope with increased demand tied to the pandemic, will be affected, according to the Department of Health and Services. However, access to free vaccines for insured people, telehealth appointments and other powers tied to a different emergency authorization issued by the department will stay in place.

Among the changes to COVID-19 tests, private insurance companies will no longer be required to cover the entire cost. A program that allows Medicare patients to receive free over-the-counter COVID-19 tests also will end. However, those patients will be able to receive tests when ordered by a physician or certain health care providers.

State Medicaid programs still will be required to provide free COVID-19 tests through Sept. 30, 2024, according to a fact sheet from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The declaration also gave health care providers certain flexibility to expand how they can deliver health care to patients to help “weather the heightened strain” through a waiver process, according to the fact sheet. Many of the waivers tied to that will no longer be needed.

For Mercyhealth, those waivers were used “sparingly,” Udy said. However, patients may notice some changes, including not being able to be discharged to a skilled nursing facility unless they have a three-night stay in the hospital.

“That was a benefit to patients and hospitals during the pandemic, as patients were able to get care in the right setting more quickly and it made more hospital beds available during times of high volume,” Udy said.