Expert panelists addressed concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine costs, availability, efficacy, and timing.
Health and medical experts recently joined the National Press Foundation (NPF) to discuss the future of COVID-19 in a “post-pandemic” world. The experts discussed various topics related to COVID-19, including the impact of the pandemic on scientific information sharing, the challenges of collecting and tracking COVID-19 data, and the importance of legislation such as the Valid Act in addressing these challenges. The discussion also covered vaccines, public health emergency recommendations, and technical difficulties that have arisen during the pandemic.
NPH Journalism Initiatives Director Rachel Jones led the discussion and asked panelists about the type of impact to expect in the months ahead as COVID-19 cases increase.
Mario Ramirez, PhD, emergency physician and Acting Director at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Global Affairs Office of Pandemic and Emerging Threats, confirmed that there is a likely continued increase in the weeks ahead. Ramirez noteed that insight into the disease spread is more limited now than just a few months ago, putting analysts several weeks behind a sense of where the virus is spreading due to a delay in hospitalization data.
“We're likely to see a much greater number of relatively mild or asymptomatic cases, but an overall lower fatality rate than we saw with earlier waves. But that is not meant to detract from the hundreds of Americans who die daily. I think as many people have said, COVID-19 is with us to stay—just as many other viruses are here with us to stay as well, and that unfortunately is a reflection of the world that we live in,” said Ramirez.
Jones then raised the question of the changes in how COVID-19 vaccines will be covered and how the public can understand what this coverage will look like.
Patricia M. D'Antonio, BSPharm, MS, MBA, BCGP, Vice President of Policy and Professional Affairs for The Gerontological Society of America, said she believes that the public must begin to think about COVID-19 as one of the respiratory vaccines that are received regularly each season. D’Antonio confirmed that private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid are covering the COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccines will be available at no cost throughout 2024 through the Bridge Program created by the Biden Administration.
“We need to make sure that the coverage is out there to help prevent or reduce the impact of COVID-19 if they choose to get the vaccine,” said D’Antonio.
D’Antonio noted that this vaccine is not to be confused with a booster shot that was distributed in the past, but is a reoccurring immunization—its formulation is new and newly approved.
Ramirez then discussed the Bridge Access Program, which was designed to provide access to vaccines for individuals who did not have eligibility under other mechanisms to receive them. This program is critically important to relay reliable information to underinsured and uninsured groups to guide individuals to administrational sites, rather than distributing news via social media platforms with unreliable information.
“The disease burden and the bad outcomes are highest in older persons, individuals who are immunosuppressed and have diseases that hamper their immune response, and folks from lower socioeconomic status who often have chronic underlying illness. When you compound that with the challenges to reliable information and misinformation that we've seen spread during the pandemic, that creates the sort of perfect storm for bad outcomes in that group,” said Ramirez.
Alexander Tin from CBS News discussed how the Bridge Access Program has evolved from the beginning of the pandemic until now. He noted the gap that started emerging early in the pandemic, when individuals had access to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at any pharmacy regardless of their insurance. These individuals did not need to jump through hurdles to find their closest health center to receive a vaccine, which is the goal of the Bridge Access Program.
“The Biden administration said they hoped it would be something they could guarantee through the Bridge Access Program, that this new batch of vaccines that's coming through the traditional commercial market could also be available in pharmacies at no out-of-pocket cost for people without insurance, because insurance is covering that cost of administering the vaccine. I think it's on the agenda, but what I've heard is that that program is not quite ready to stand up yet in pharmacies,” said Tin.
The experts addressed the public’s concerns about challenges to improving the health surveillance system. Ramirez traced this issue back to the original foundational structures that continued to stay with the state health and local health departments. Having more than 2400 different health departments and localities with different reporting requirements and responsibilities lead to data problems, and Ramirez noted that the way to address this challenge is through legislation.
Finally, the experts then addressed a question from the public regarding CDC updates on guidelines for exposure, testing, and masking. Ramirez said he does not believe anyone knows the absolute right answer to this question but said progress can be made to simplify the terms of the guidelines.
“There are no magic bullets against this virus and it's important for people to stay aware and think through each of those steps and come see us in the emergency room or see your doctor if you don't feel well,” said Ramirez.
Is Your COVID Shot Covered? National Press Foundation. September 12, 2023. Accessed September 14, 2023.