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How to Find COVID Tests, Care and Vaccines in California When Federal Emergency Ends

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A healthcare worker in blue scrubs and a clear face mask shows a cotton swab to a child, whose back is toward the camera. The child is wearing a bright pink coat and white backpack with blue and pink designs. A pair of healthcare workers are seen sitting at a table with medical equipment in the background.
A health care worker preps a COVID-19 test for a child at a testing site on 24th and Mission streets in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Update, June 20: As of June 1, you can no longer order free COVID-19 tests from the federal government and USPS. A message on the covidtests.gov site says that ordering has “been suspended to preserve remaining supply.” 

On Thursday, May 11, the White House officially ended the public health emergency for COVID-19. This comes after California ended its own state of emergency back in February.

The end of the federal public health emergency will have big impacts on how people in the United States access COVID care, and how much they’ll pay for it. But a lot of these changes won’t actually apply to Californians — at least not for folks with health insurance.

Keep reading for what you need to know about how your access to COVID vaccines, bivalent boosters, free tests and treatments like Paxlovid has changed — or hasn’t changed — since May 11.

Jump straight to:

I thought the state of emergency had already ended?

You’re not wrong. There have just been several states of emergency for COVID, on the local, national and international levels.

On Feb. 28, California ended its own COVID state of emergency. This move was characterized as “a symbolic end” to the pandemic in the state, and a “decision [that] will have little practical impact on most people’s lives.” When the state announced the order would be lifted in February, the majority of the 600 pandemic-related orders Newsom had issued since March 2020 had been lifted. Many cities around California still had their own states of emergency, and have lifted those since.

On April 10, the federal national emergency ended early. This emergency order, which was separate from the federal public health emergency that’s ending this week, was originally set to also expire on May 11 — but a bipartisan congressional resolution moved to bring this order to a close ahead of schedule.

On May 5, the World Health Organization (WHO) ended the international global emergency status for COVID, saying that individual countries should now manage the coronavirus. It also recommended that the United Nations retire its characterization of COVID as a “public health emergency of international concern,” which has been in place since January 2020.

I’m hearing that free COVID tests and care are going away after May 11. Is that true?

No — at least not for people with health insurance in California, including people on Medi-Cal. (Jump straight to how you’ll be affected if you are uninsured in California.)

It’s true that the end of these national emergencies will have big effects on nationwide funding for COVID vaccines and testing. This means that in other states, people with health insurance will find that their insurers no longer have to cover the costs of COVID care like testing and treatment.

But California has enacted several laws that force insurers to keep covering COVID care even after the state and federal states of emergency end (more on this below).

COVID vaccines will most likely remain free for people with insurance for all of the United States

The White House’s COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish K. Jha promised that COVID vaccines will remain free in the U.S. for insured people as a preventive service covered under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

In California, Senate Bill 510 requires insurers in California to keep covering COVID costs like testing and vaccination after the national public health emergency ends anyway.

A white medication box with blue, pink and yellow stripes on the left-hand side. The words "Paxlovid 150 mg + 100 mg film-coated tablets" is printed in blue. A woman's hands are holding either side of the box. It's a close-up shot.
Paxlovid, Pfizer’s COVID-19 antiviral treatment. (Europa Press/C.Lujan.POOL via Getty Images)

People in California with health insurance can still get Paxlovid for free

Another California law — SB 1473 — requires insurers to keep covering the costs of COVID therapeutic treatments like Paxlovid. This also applies to people on Medi-Cal and Medicare. This law only keeps the current situation in place until six months after the end of the federal public health emergency, on Nov. 11.

Click here to find a prescription for Paxlovid.

People in California with health insurance can still get reimbursed for COVID tests 

SB 1473 also requires insurers to keep reimbursing their members for the costs of up to eight over-the-counter COVID tests a month. This also applies to people on Medi-Cal, but again, this law is only in effect until Nov. 11.

Read about how to get reimbursed for COVID tests by your insurer.

If you see signs in your local pharmacy saying that May 11 was your last chance to get the cost of your COVID tests reimbursed by your insurer, remember: If you live in California, this isn’t accurate.

Medicare no longer covers the cost of over-the-counter COVID tests (people on Medicare Part B, medical insurance, were previously able to get free antigen tests.) The only COVID tests Medicare still covers are diagnostic tests done by a laboratory and ordered by your health care provider, for Medicare Part B users (some Medicare Advantage Plans may require cost sharing.

What happens after Nov. 11? If you want Paxlovid or to get reimbursed for COVID tests by an insurer after that date, you’ll have to make sure you are obtaining these services “in network.” Right now, specific details about what that will look like in practice come November are still lacking.

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After May 11, how can people in California without health insurance access COVID care?

Thanks to state legislation from 2020, California has offered uninsured state residents free COVID testing, hospital care and treatment via Medi-Cal providers during the pandemic — if they signed up for the state’s COVID-19 Uninsured Group program, managed by the Department of Health Care Services. But this program is ending on May 31, 2023.

The state is now asking uninsured people that were enrolled in the Uninsured Group program (PDF) to instead “apply for no-cost or low-cost health coverage through Medi-Cal or Covered California.” You can visit coveredca.com and use the calculator tool on the home page to see whether you qualify for Medi-Cal or Covered California coverage.

A close-up shot of a health care professional in black gloves holding a COVID-19 rapid test, which is pictured as a thick, white paper test with holes for a cotton swab to rest inside.
A rapid COVID-19 test held by a health care professional at a Unidos en Salud testing site, a collaboration of UCSF and the Latino Task Force, during a post-holiday COVID-19 outreach event on 24th and Mission streets in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The state’s materials for uninsured people state that Covered California has a special enrollment period “due to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.” This special enrollment period “will end 60 days after the last day of the month when the Public Health Emergency ends” — which is July 30.

To enroll by the end of this special pandemic enrollment period, the state suggests to visit coveredca.com/apply and choose “Pandemic (COVID-19)/Public Health Emergency” as your qualifying life event from the “Special Enrollment” drop-down menu. The date of your qualifying life event should be the current date. You can also enroll in Covered California if you have another qualifying life event.

Accessing COVID vaccines in California when you’re uninsured

The state’s Department of Health Care Services is advising uninsured people enrolled in their COVID-19 Uninsured Group program that “after this program ends, you can still get vaccinated for free (PDF),” and to visit California’s vaccines site myturn.ca.gov for more information.

The White House has also promised that COVID vaccines will stay free for people without insurance nationally, thanks to a program that the Biden administration says should be funded through the end of 2024.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) told KQED in an email that “for the uninsured, free COVID-19 vaccines and pill medications at most pharmacies, public health clinics, and federally-supported clinics will continue for now.”

“Low-cost or free COVID-19 doctor visits may also be obtained through Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and free clinics,” said CDPH. Find an FQHC near you via the federal Health Resources and Services Administration’s map.

Finding Paxlovid and other COVID treatments in California when you’re uninsured

Californians without insurance currently have several options to get a free prescription for the COVID antiviral drug Paxlovid, or other COVID therapeutics — including using Sesame Care, the state’s free COVID telehealth service, which is still operational for now.

President Joe Biden speaks from the presidential podium inside the White House. He has short, gray hair, and wears a navy suit and tie. The presidential seal is in gold in the center of the podium and gold curtains are seen in the background.
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 18, 2021, in Washington, DC. On May 11, the White House will officially end the public health emergency for COVID-19. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The White House has promised that the same program that will fund free COVID vaccines for uninsured people through 2024 will also allow people without insurance to still get Paxlovid for free at certain participating pharmacies.

Finding COVID tests in California when you’re uninsured

The White House website covid.gov/tests has been offering separate orders of free COVID antigen tests for each household during the pandemic. This program looks to be continuing after the federal public health emergency ended on May 11, but it’s unclear how much longer it’ll last.

So if your household hasn’t ordered any free tests since Dec. 15, 2022, consider placing your order for another four free COVID tests ASAP.

A doctor in all white holds a clip board and wears a white mask as they stand with other masked individuals at a COVID-19 testing site. One man sits helping people who are in line. He wears an orange and yellow vest.
A doctor stands at the entrance of a COVID-19 testing event at Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland on Oct. 31, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Currently, there are still some sites offering free COVID testing around the state; see them at myturn.ca.gov/testing by applying the “Free Sites” filter from the drop-down menu. It’s not yet clear how many of these will continue operating in the coming months. For more ideas on how to find a free or low-cost COVID test near you, see our KQED guide.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

This story has been updated to reflect that Medicare no longer covers the cost of over-the-counter COVID tests, only PCR tests ordered by a health care provider for Medicare Part B users.

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