Just one year ago, the COVID-19 omicron variant was spreading in communities across the United States. That meant increased hospitalizations and deaths, which is why public health officials recommended updated vaccinations along with masking, social distancing and the other pandemic steps we’ve been taking since 2020.
Although the federal COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended on May 11, officials say the dangers of contracting or spreading the virus aren’t over. But personal measures, including testing and staying updated on vaccines, will remain important to prevent future case surges or the spread of new variants, officials and experts say.
“The end of the declaration of the public health emergency doesn’t mean that there is an end to the pandemic, and it doesn’t mean the end of our commitment to provide services to protect this community from a COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Fermin Leguen of the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) said in a virtual press conference on May 11.
Dr. Cortland Lohff, chief medical officer with SNHD, said the end of the public health emergency—a federal declaration that had made programs and funds available to state and local governments to combat the virus’ spread and economic impacts—brings changes to vaccination recommendations.
“We’re sort of moving away from this idea of a booster dose, in that booster doses are generally provided to someone who received a primary vaccination series,” Lohff explained to members of the media. “What we’re moving to now is this recommendation that everybody who has yet to receive a dose of the so-called bivalent mRNA vaccine should receive a single dose of that mRNA vaccine.”
The bivalent mRNA vaccines—now known as “updated vaccines”—were granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and became available in Southern Nevada in September 2022 for ages 12 and older. In contrast to the original monovalent COVID-19 vaccines, the updated Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (which we called “boosters”) provided additional protection against strains of the omicron variant that emerged in late 2021. By March 2022, the updated vaccines were given emergency use authorization to administer to children 6 months to 11 years old.
In April, the FDA announced amendments to the emergency use authorizations of Moderna and Pfizer’s updated vaccines “to simplify the vaccination schedule for most individuals.”
“As a result of that, the current bivalent vaccines were authorized to be used for all doses administered,” Lohff explained. “And what this meant is that monovalent vaccines that have been in place for the last two years are no longer authorized nor available for use.”
While the official recommendation is for everyone older than 6 months to receive at least one dose of the updated vaccine, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people older than 65 and those who are immunocompromised can get an additional dose of the updated vaccine four or more months after the first updated COVID-19 vaccine.
“In certain instances, … there may be an indication that they received a second dose of that bivalent vaccine just for added protection. It’s not necessarily considered a booster dose although in some ways, it does act in that way,” Lohff said.
COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government “will remain free to everyone regardless of insurance coverage,” Lohff added. After the federal supply is depleted, vaccinations will be covered by public and private insurance. “And as always, the Health District remains a safety net for those who otherwise lack access to vaccination.”
Testing and data reporting
Southern Nevada Health District officials have assured the public that COVID-19 testing and treatments will remain available in the community, despite the end of the federal public health emergency. But there will be some changes to insurance coverage and to where testing is available in the Valley.
“While the Health District testing clinic will no longer operate after July 31, its two clinics at the College of Southern Nevada, Charleston and Cheyenne campuses, will offer PCR testing until March of 2024,” said Health District official Dr. Cassius Lockett.
The Health District is also providing free self-test kits via six vending machines in Southern Nevada. Four are in the Las Vegas Valley—at the RTC Bonneville Transit Center, the RTC South Strip Transit Terminal, the East Las Vegas Community Center and the Fremont Public Health Center. (The others are in Laughlin and Mesquite.)
Lockett said test kits are free, up to five per month—for now. Most insurance plans will adjust their coverage policies for COVID-19 tests, vaccines and treatments, he added.
Although vaccine and testing resources are being scaled down, that doesn’t mean they don’t still serve an important role in early detection and preventing further spread, Lockett warned. Officials encourage people to test as soon as they have symptoms, if they’ve had contact with someone who has COVID or if they will have contact with someone who is at higher risk of severe illness. Those who test positive are advised to notify close contacts and seek further PCR testing for confirmation, if needed.
“SARS-CoV-2 continues to circulate in U.S. communities … and as of May 10, in the United States we are averaging around 11,000 cases a day and about 160 deaths a day,” Lockett said at the virtual press conference. “Cases are undercounted. … The primary reason is due to the expanded use of at-home test kits. … Relying solely on metrics like daily case counts and [test] positivity rates may no longer provide a comprehensive understanding of COVID levels in the community.”
While testing and isolating remain the tried and true methods for keeping community spread under control, Lockett also discussed a pandemic response that hasn’t aged as well—data collection. The Health District will update its methods to adhere to federal standards. “Like flu season, we acknowledge that many individuals experience mild symptoms and may not seek medical testing or treatment. Therefore, we may rely on alternative metrics such as hospitalizations and deaths to assess the impact of the season,” he said.
Lockett added that wastewater surveillance, which has been conducted in partnership between government agencies, UNLV and the Desert Research Institute, will continue to be used to track new and emerging variants in the community.
Epidemiologist Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization said during a May 4 program that, because immunity from vaccines and natural immunity wanes over time, some countries continue to report rising cases of COVID-19.
“There are a number of reasons why we’re seeing increasing cases in a number of countries. First is that the virus continues to evolve,” Kerkhove said. “While we are seeing an increase in case reporting in a number of countries around the world, we are not really seeing an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. … Because we have access to diagnostics, early clinical care and the use of antivirals and safe and effective vaccines, people who are infected or reinfected with SARS-CoV-2 are not dying as frequently in the beginning of this pandemic when we didn’t have treatments and we didn’t have vaccines.”