CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WV News) — Gov. Jim Justice and the state’s interim DHHR secretary recently marked the formal end of the national Public Health Emergency related to COVID-19.
Justice reflected on the start of the pandemic in March 2020, while Dr. Jeffrey Coben provided information on the various DHHR programs and services impacted by the end of the public health emergency.
“Gracious, it just seems like it was yesterday,” Justice said in recalling the decision to cancel the state high school basketball tournament on March 12, 2020.
“The state girls basketball tournament was going on, and my team (Greenbrier East High School) was ready to play,” he said. “I felt like it was the right thing to move and to move at that point in time based on the information that we had. So it all kind of started right then.”
Less than a week later, on March 17, Justice announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state and ordered the closure of the state’s bars, restaurants and casinos.
Justice went on to praise the members of his COVID-19 Task Force, including West Virginia University’s Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID czar, and James Hoyer, the former adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard who headed the state’s vaccine distribution efforts.
Coben, who began serving as interim DHHR secretary following the departure of former Secretary Bill Crouch in December, said the end of the public health emergency will bring about changes to multiple programs in the DHHR’s Bureau for Medical Services and Bureau for Family Assistance.
Impacted programs include Medicaid, the West Virginia Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT).
“This does impact many federal programs and what we want to work toward is to make sure that has the least impact upon the citizens here in West Virginia,” Coben said.
The DHHR has issued guidance for the recipients of these programs, which is available on its website, Coben said.
“We strongly encourage you to visit our website, coronavirus.wv.gov, and click on the tab ‘End of the Public Health Emergency DHHR Program Update,’” he said. “This will provide you with information specific to any and all of those programs.”
While the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency is over, West Virginia residents are encouraged to remain current on their recommended COVID-19 vaccines.
“Please stay up to date with your vaccinations so we can continue to navigate as we move forward,” Coben said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently updated their COVID-19 vaccination guidance.
The agencies have “simplified” the recommended vaccine schedule, Marsh said in a video message played during one of Justice’s recent briefings.
“For children 6 years and older and adults, the CDC and FDA have agreed that having a single Omicron COVID-19 shot is the regimen now as the primary shot,” he said. “The new guidance is that for people who are more than four months from the last Omicron COVID-19 shot, then people who are over 65 are eligible for a second Omicron COVID-19 shot. People who are immunocompromised ... are eligible two months after their last COVID-19 Omicron shot.”
Dr. Lee Smith, health officer for the Monongalia County Health Department, said his office has been fielding calls from residents with questions about the impacted programs.
“Everybody wants to know, ‘How it will impact me personally?’” he said. “People want to know, ‘Well, if I’m Medicare, what is going to get paid for in terms of testing and vaccines?’”
Changes to SNAP are not expected to impact mothers, infants or children, Smith said.
According to information from the DHHR, work requirement for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents will resume statewide starting July 1. SNAP is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by DHHR’s Bureau for Family Assistance.
The work requirement impacts SNAP recipients ages 18-49 without children or other qualifying dependents and who lack an identified condition that would prevent them from participating in a qualifying work, volunteer or education activity.
All potentially impacted SNAP recipients will receive a letter in mid-May with more information. Those who believe they should be exempted from the work requirement are encouraged to speak with their caseworker.
Caseworkers can also provide referrals to the SNAP Employment & Training program, which can help meet the work requirement through job placement and training.
The DHHR’s Pandemic EBT program ended May 11 for children “in childcare,” Smith said.
“If you have a child in childcare and you’ve been given EBT credits, those go away,” he said. “Then for children not in childcare but in school, those benefits will continue throughout the summer.”
Chad Bundy, executive director of the Harrison-Clarksburg Health Department, said the end of the Public Health Emergency means COVID-19 has transitioned from a pandemic to an endemic.
“The good news is [we] go back to a health care system as it was operating prior to COVID,” he said. “It seems like it was a very long time ago before that was in place.”
When the virus first emerged in the early 2020, very little was known about it or its effects, Bundy said.
“This thing was called a ‘novel’ virus on the front end because we didn’t know what it was going to do,” he said. “That is no longer the case. We have a lot of research that says what it’s going to do, how it’s going affect and who it’s going to affect as far as the population.”
COVID-19 vaccines will remain free and available to the public after the end of the Public Health Emergency, Bundy said.
“We will have the vaccine available for the consumers for the immediate future,” he said. “That could change, but it’s not changing — to my knowledge — as of May 11. We’ll have it here, or you can go to your pharmacy and those types of places.”
The end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency will not result in any operational changes at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, according to Sean McGinty, public affairs specialist.
“LAJVAMC is currently basing its operational stance off the Veterans Health Administration COVID-19 Operational Plan, following the rules in place for the community transmission rates compiled within the VA National Surveillance Tool: Health Protection Level Updates,” McGinty said in an email to WV News. “Due to our local area’s COVID Health Protection Level remaining in the ‘Medium’ status, we will continue to ask all veterans, visitors and employees to wear masks inside of our facilities, and employ active screening at each of our facilities entrances.”
However, the medical center does plan to release an updated COVID-19 Operational Plan “which may affect LAJVAMC’s operational stance,” McGinty said.
“The date for the release of the new operational plan is currently unknown,” he said.
There have been 650,556 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia since the start of the pandemic, and 8,125 deaths, according to data from the DHHR.