Hospitals urge Biden, Becerra to extend emergency declarations as hospitalizations reach pandemic highs

A lighted emergency room sign outside of a hospital
Emergency declarations set to expire Jan. 16 and March 1 are "critical" in supporting hospitals and health systems' ability to manage COVID-19's latest surge, the American Hospital Association told federal leaders. Officials announced today that seven-day average hospitalizations increased 33% over the last week to 19,800 new admissions per day. (Getty/MJFelt)

With case counts skyrocketing and hospitalizations now reaching pandemic highs, the nation’s largest hospital group is calling on the federal government to again extend COVID-19 emergency declarations set to expire in the coming days and months.

In separate letters to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and President Joe Biden, the American Hospital Association (AHA) argued that the nation’s healthcare system is not prepared to lose waivers and flexibilities granted under the leaders’ respective COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, set to expire Jan. 16, and the national emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, set to expire March 1.

"The emergency declarations have proven critical in equipping hospitals and health systems with the tools and resources necessary to manage the recent COVID-19 surges and ensure high-quality care in this unprecedented environment,” AHA wrote in both letters. “In their absence, the challenges of the pandemic will be exponentially more difficult to overcome.”

Becerra previously extended HHS’ public health emergency on Oct. 15, 2021. AHA asked the agency to renew that declaration “for at least another 90 days,” placing the next expiration in mid-April.

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Biden’s extension under the National Emergencies Act was issued Feb. 24, 2021. AHA asked the president to prolong the emergency declaration for another full year.

The request comes as the highly infectious omicron variant has more patients hospitalized than the previous highs notched last January.

According to HHS data updated Wednesday, more than 151,261 of the country’s inpatient beds and 24,711 ICU beds are currently in use for COVID-19 patients, respectively. New hospitalizations over a seven-day average have now reached 19,800 per day—an increase of 33% over last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said today in a briefing.

Staffing shortages felt by health systems and front-line providers over the course of the pandemic have also been exacerbated by the latest wave. To curtail shutdowns, some hard-hit regions are permitting COVID-positive healthcare workers with no symptoms to return to work without isolation or additional testing.

As of Wednesday, about half of the country’s governors had enacted or reinstated their own public health emergencies to continue vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, temporary staffing and other efforts related to their COVID-19 response.

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“COVID-19 remains a significant threat to our state and we must commit every resource available to beating back the wave caused by the Omicron variant,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Jan. 11 statement alongside the reinstatement of his state’s public health emergency. “While we hope to return to a state of normalcy as soon as possible, the step I am taking today is a commonsense measure that will protect the safety and well-being of all New Jersey residents while allowing state government to respond to the continuing threat that COVID-19 poses to our daily lives.”

In its letters, the AHA acknowledged that “not all areas of the country are experiencing COVID-19 surges simultaneously,” but argued even those facing manageable case counts will benefit from continued federal assistance.

“We are hopeful that as the vaccination rate increases and other COVID-19 countermeasures are developed and utilized, the [public health emergency] will eventually wane,” the industry group wrote. “Until that time, however, our members need the assistance and flexibility from the federal government.”