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Mask Mandate Extended, Cases Continue to Rise


Last updated 1/27/2022 at 9:16am

As many gear into the new year and hope for a better year compared to 2020 and 2021, a curve ball continues to be thrown in the midst.

The state of California has extended its statewide indoor mask mandate. The mandate was set to be re-evaluated on January 15, but has been pushed back amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. According to Dr. Mark Ghaly, the Secretary of the California Health and Human Services agency, the mandate was extended through February 15.

“Omicron is here and it’s here now,” Ghaly said, adding that the situation this year differs from last. Health officials also noted that the state is in a good place compared to 2021, noting that the main concern currently is hospitals.

The mandate was originally issued in mid-December, requiring everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face covering in all indoor public places.

Dr. Ghaly said that this state-wide mandate will end once the pressure on hospitals eases and cases are improving.

With hospitals being overwhelmed and staffing shortages, health authorities are allowing nurses and other workers infected with the coronavirus to stay on the job if they have mild symptoms or none at all. This move, however, is not sitting right with many, including those who lost their jobs and/or were put on leave for not following the vaccine mandate.

In California, the Department of Public Health said the new policy was prompted by “critical staffing shortages.” It asked hospitals to make every attempt to fill openings by bringing in employees from outside staffing agencies.

The 100,000-member California Nurses Association came out against the decision and warned it will lead to more infections.

Governor Gavin Newsom and other state health leaders “are putting the needs of health care corporations before the safety of patients and workers,” Cathy Kennedy, the association’s president, said in a statement. “We want to care for our patients and see them get better, not potentially infect them.”

President Joe Biden’s administration is redoubling its efforts to expand supply and accessibility of COVID-19 testing as it faces mounting criticism over long lines and supply shortages for testing nationwide and confusion about when to get tested amid the omicron surge.

The White House announced that a dedicated stream of five million rapid tests and five million lab-based PCR tests will be made available to schools starting this month.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offered guidance for when Americans should use tests – which were in short supply as Americans traveled and saw family during the busy holiday season.

“Americans should take a test when they have symptoms that appear to be COVID-19,” she said, including fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory symptoms and muscle aches. She also said they should test after known exposure to the virus, generally five days after being exposed, or earlier as part of test-to-stay protocols in schools and workplaces.

“Certainly if you’re going to gather with family, if you’re going to a gathering where people are immunocompromised or where they’re elderly or where you have people who might be unvaccinated or poorly protected from a vaccine that might be an opportunity you want to test,” she added.

Officials announced that private health insurers will be required to cover up to eight home COVID-19 tests per month for people on their plans. The federal government will also soon launch a website to begin making 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests available via mail.

The administration is scaling up emergency rapid-testing sites in areas experiencing the greatest surges in cases. The insurer-covered testing would dramatically reduce costs for many Americans, and the administration hopes that by easing a barrier to more regular at-home testing, it can help slow the spread of the virus, get kids back into school more quickly and help people gather safely. The administration is also trying to incentivize private insurers to cover the tests up-front and without a cumbersome reimbursement process. Insurance plans that work with pharmacies and retailers to cover the up-front costs of the tests will be required to reimburse only up to $12 per test if purchased through an out-of-network retailer. Plans that don’t move proactively to set up a network of pharmacies would have to cover the full retail price that the customer paid , which could be more than $12 per test. Only tests purchased on or after Jan. 15 will be required to be reimbursed, the administration said. Some insurers may choose to cover the costs of at-home tests purchased earlier, but they won’t have to.

Unfortunately, Americans on Medicare won’t be able to get tests reimbursed through the federal insurance plan, but Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program plans are required to cover the cost of at-home tests fully. Those who are not on a covered insurance plan can receive free tests through the forthcoming federal website or from some local community centers and pharmacies.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to prevent price gouging on at-home COVID-19 test kits. The governor’s order prohibits sellers from hiking prices of the test kits by more than 10%.

The action comes amid an omicron-driven COVID-19 surge and those rushing to buy rapid test kits only to find them sold out at many stores and pharmacies.

Stores like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart have been limiting sales of the at-home COVID-19 rapid test kits, which have been in high demand since before the holidays. The kits, which let people test themselves for the virus, are available without a prescription and provide results within minutes.

After an agreement with the White House expired, Walmart and Kroger raised prices on the BinaxNOW test, which is one of the most popular over the counter kits available.

With tests becoming scarce, officials have been warning about fake and unauthorized at-home testing kits popping up online, or highly sought-after tests being resold online at a mark-up. At-home COVID-19 tests available at U.S. stores include Abbott BinaxNOW, Acon FlowFlex, Quidel Quickvue, Ellume and Pixel by LabCorp.

We all must do our part to once again get through these hard times. It is our hope this will be a thing of the past. So, let’s keep working together.

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