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COVID vaccine mandate for federal workers and others is set to end May 11

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The White House announced on Monday that it will end its COVID vaccine mandate for federal workers and others. The change will take effect on May 11. It's part of a broader unwinding of the public health emergency. NPR's Pien Huang joins us now. So tell us - why is the White House ending COVID vaccine requirements?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, Juana, these requirements were always meant to be temporary, and the White House is saying that now is a time that makes sense. The Biden administration says that this change will apply to a range of people, from federal workers and contractors to international travelers coming to the country, health care workers at government-funded hospitals and nursing homes, teachers at Head Start programs. And the administration says that it makes sense now because COVID hospitalizations and deaths are at a low point. They've dropped by over 90% in the past 2 1/2 years. I spoke with Dr. Ali Khan, dean of public health at the University of Nebraska, and he says that this is a milestone.

ALI KHAN: This represents the final transition of this pandemic to an endemic sort of seasonal respiratory disease, excluding some new deadly variant.

HUANG: And Khan says that shifting COVID out of the emergency mode makes sense because it's no longer disrupting health care, undermining the economy, closing schools. And this change goes along with the end of the public health emergency, which is coming next week.

SUMMERS: OK. So I understand that the federal vaccination requirements are going away, but what can you tell us about what this is actually going to look like?

HUANG: It's going to depend a lot on where you live. I spoke with Dr. Marcus Plescia, who's with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. And he says that without this blanket policy from the federal government, it's going to come to state and local authorities to set their own policies on vaccines.

MARCUS PLESCIA: You know, it certainly sets a precedent that states are going to have to pay attention to, but I'm not sure it's a big problem because I think most states are moving in that direction.

HUANG: So, for example, in Washington state, Seattle and King County have already stopped making their workers get vaccinated. Lawmakers there pushed for first responders and police officers who were fired because they didn't get vaccinated now to be rehired. California dropped its vaccination requirement for health care workers last month. And I do want to note that Plescia and other health experts say that this is one group where dropping vaccine requirements might seem a little dicey. That's because health care workers are in a lot of contact with people who are sick and at high risk. And now that the federal requirement is going away, we might see some hospitals and health systems putting their own requirements in place, though it will be more of a patchwork.

SUMMERS: Yeah. So, Pien, as we mentioned earlier, the federal government is also ending the public health emergency on May 11. And as I hear that, that kind of gives the impression that we as a nation are moving past COVID. Is that how you see it?

HUANG: That's definitely how the administration is framing it. And going forward, the model for dealing with COVID is going to look a lot like how the country deals with flu. But even though COVID deaths are the lowest they've been in three years, they're still at a thousand COVID deaths a week. And that is worse than a very bad flu season. And there's also concerns that people have shared with me that access to vaccines, testing, treatment - all that is likely to get worse and more unequal as federal attention turns away from COVID. So the bottom line here is that a lot of the health experts I spoke with said it makes sense that the emergency around COVID is ending, but the virus is still out there. People are dying from it every day. And they say that there needs to be long-term attention and plans to get vaccines and treatments to people at high risk so that they're spared from what's now a largely preventable disease.

SUMMERS: NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you.

HUANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZMINE SULLIVAN SONG, "LET IT BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.