Expiration of California, federal COVID emergencies could end some free services in Santa Cruz County

A testing site for COVID-19 variants at Los Angeles International Airport's Tom Bradley International Terminal.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

California ends its COVID-19 emergency declarations Tuesday, just shy of three years since they were first issued. While that move might not immediately affect much locally, federal emergency declarations are set to sunset in May, which could end some of the free services introduced during the pandemic.

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As California ends its COVID state of emergency, Santa Cruz County is in much better shape than it has been in any of the previous three years. But the end of the state’s emergency declaration — along with the expiration of federal emergency declarations in May — could eventually put an stop to free COVID vaccines, tests and treatments for local residents.

Gov. Gavin Newsom officially ends the state’s COVID emergency Tuesday, nearly three years after the first lockdowns in March 2020. The state of emergency — issued March 4, 2020 — allowed the governor to streamline more than 70 executive orders relating to testing and vaccination, expanding the practices that health care workers were permitted to perform and pausing evictions.

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Cal Gordon described the expiration of the emergency declarations as the official beginning of the pandemic’s end, not the finish line. “This isn’t like D-Day in World War II where we can all declare victory,” he said, adding that as the overall impact of COVID lessens, the services and responses we have become accustomed to will gradually phase out.

Locally, COVID cases have remained low and largely stable in recent months, and the county fared well during the winter’s “tripledemic” of COVID, flu and respiratory syncytial virus. Even during surges of COVID cases in December, local hospitals admitted very few patients, and the county has not recorded a death in nearly three months.

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The county’s state-sponsored testing sites at the Veterans Memorial Building in Watsonville, the county building on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz and the Felton Public Library all closed within the past month.

Otherwise, the end of California’s state of emergency this week is unlikely to change much for local residents in the short term. The sunsetting of the federal emergency declarations on May 11 will likely have a bigger local impact, Gordon said.

“In many respects, by this summer, COVID is going to be treated as just another infectious disease in terms of federal funding,” he said. “The things we’ve had were possible through federal funding that passed through the state, and much of that federal funding goes away on May 11.”

Gordon added that this does not mean the services such as tests, vaccines and treatments that we have relied on for the past few years will instantly evaporate, but will begin ramping down. There are significant federal stockpiles of resources including rapid antigen tests, bivalent vaccines and antivirals like Paxlovid, which means they will remain free for some time. “But at some point, we [individuals] will probably have to start paying,” Gordon said.

He said that Paxlovid, for example, could remain free into the fall due to a huge federal stockpile.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said in a tweet in early February that Paxlovid and vaccines would stay free even after May 11. He added that the government is “committed to ensuring that vaccines and treatments are accessible and not prohibitively expensive for uninsured Americans,” but did not provide further specifics.

Rapid antigen tests — which are currently free of charge through the federal government and can be ordered through the U.S. Postal Service — could come with a cost after May 11, but it is unclear how that might shake out. Gordon also said that vaccines are likely to be covered by insurance for the foreseeable future, “just like people can get free flu shots.”

However, Gordon warned that those without health insurance could be caught short. “There may be gaps for people who are the most vulnerable,” he said. “They’re uninsured or they may not have the same level of access to these other services.”

He said Santa Cruz County will heavily focus on the uninsured, the unhoused and those in residential care and skilled nursing facilities, and county public health will work with other local agencies to continue distributing COVID tools such as tests and treatments. Over the course of the pandemic, Gordon said, the county supplied thousands of rapid tests to community partners, like federally qualified health centers and food banks, where they remain available. For the most part, county public health will urge residents to take advantage of the currently free services as May 11 draws closer.

“We’re encouraging people to get their vaccines or boosters while they’re free and available,” said Gordon.


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