VOICES: The Public Health Emergency has ended, but smart pandemic-era policies should remain

Though it feels like we may have been living under the COVID Public Health Emergency (PHE) forever, the three-year declaration came to an end on May 11. This is good news — and shows just how far we have come in a relatively short period of time. However, it is important to note that although the PHE has ended, COVID has not gone away. It’s still important to be vaccinated and to quickly treat the virus if contracted — especially for older Americans.

That’s why it’s good news that access to COVID vaccines and treatments will remain for now. To help maintain the progress we see in the decline of cases and hospitalizations, the government will continue to provide these to eligible Americans at no cost; Medicaid and Medicare will continue to cover vaccines and treatments until September 2024.

Another positive pandemic change in the way medical care is delivered was the advent of telehealth. More of a novelty before COVID, the safety and convenience of virtual appointments is here to stay. To that end telehealth for Medicare and Medicaid which came of age in the pandemic will remain largely unchanged. This is good news for people who have trouble getting to a doctor, or who live a distance from their doctors, or for when you’re sick and don’t want to go to the doctor.

However, you can’t give someone a vaccine on a telehealth appointment.

Having vaccines available without a copay is a good thing but getting vaccines to people who need them is a different challenge.

Here’s another thing that didn’t change on May 11: your ability to get the COVID or flu vaccine at a pharmacy. But, I think many of us have enjoyed the convenience of being able to get more than the COVID vaccine at the pharmacy during the past few years, which is why we need state lawmakers to act to expand the law to include all FDA and CDC endorsed vaccinations.

Nearly half of the states have either passed or filed legislation to expand pharmacists and pharmacy technician’s authority to administer vaccines. The other half should do the same if their laws don’t already include these provisions.

A stop at the pharmacy is something most of us do or could do on a regular basis. As opposed to getting to a doctor’s office, which in some places can be a challenge, 9 out of 10 Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy. Further, a Global Healthy Living Foundation study found that pharmacies also have greater hours of operation than physician practices. In low-income communities of Ohio, pharmacies are accessible for 105.2% more hours than a physician’s practice. For people who make an hourly wage or do not have childcare, this access is critical.

Many of us get our annual flu shot at the pharmacy — and that number is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention an additional one million flu vaccines were administered in pharmacies as of April of this year versus April 2022.

Making vaccines readily available, close to where people are each day can only help get more of us vaccinated. The same is true for the ability to get treatments easily at the pharmacy.

Here’s how that works — when you’re sick, you go to the pharmacy. They can test you for a number of viruses — think COVID, flu and pneumonia. But instead of having to make another stop to get a prescription, your pharmacist can prescribe you the proper treatment right then and there. This concept is a good one on many levels.

First, when people get treated quickly, they get better quickly. How many of us have put off dealing with cold or flu symptoms because you didn’t have time to make a doctor’s appointment?

Healthy people can be more productive — they go to work and school, businesses are more productive, and we’re better off as a society, and businesses can stay open.

And again, the convenience. We’ve seen throughout the last several years that the best way to get people both preventative vaccines and disease treatment is to go to them. Pharmacies have the ability to do that.

I urge state leaders to prioritize these smart public health initiatives. We don’t know when or if there will be another pandemic, but if there is, Americans will be better protected the next time.

Saul Anuzis is president of 60 Plus Association, the American Association of Senior Citizens, a nonprofit advocacy group based in the Washington, D.C. area.

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