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HHS Renews Declaration of Public Health Emergency for COVID-19

Tuesday, July 28, 2020  
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APA Psychiatric News Alert
Monday, July 27, 2020

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar formally renewed the agency’s determination that the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency. The extension of this public health emergency keeps many regulatory changes and waivers relevant to psychiatrists—such as relaxed telemedicine restrictions—in effect for the time being.

Secretary Azar first declared COVID-19 a public health emergency in late January and subsequently renewed that status on April 21. APA and other health organizations had urged the Trump administration to authorize another extension to help combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There have been over 4 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 150,000 COVID-related deaths since the virus was first identified in the United States on January 20.

“APA recently surveyed its membership to understand the impact of easing telehealth regulations on practice during the PHE [public health emergency]. The survey found a major shift to the use of telehealth after the PHE was declared,” wrote APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A., in a letter to the HHS secretary. “While the changes were necessary to comply with physical distancing and self-isolation mandates, this shows that telehealth for treating psychiatric and substance use disorders can be adopted quickly, and efficiently, and that most barriers to doing so in the first place may have been regulatory in nature. These survey results mirror national research on telehealth that show improved access to care, reduced no-show rates, and a high rate of patient satisfaction.”

In addition to maintaining relaxed telemedicine guidelines, the continuation of the emergency determination allows the Food and Drug Administration to quickly authorize the use of unapproved COVID-19 medications for patients and provides state and local health departments more flexibility to reassign some emergency personnel to respond to virus outbreaks.

As stipulated by law, the emergency extension—which began July 25—is valid for 90 days and thus due to expire at the end of October.