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The COVID-19 health emergency is over. Here's what that means in Northeast Ohio

Kent State University student Marz Anderson gets his Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination from Kent State nurse Beth Krul in Kent, Ohio, Thursday, April 8, 2021.
Phil Long
Kent State University student Marz Anderson gets his Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination from Kent State nurse Beth Krul in Kent, Ohio, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

The federal government's decision to end the public health emergency designation for COVID-19 is good news for Ohio, but there is still much work to do regarding COVID and other health risks facing Northeast Ohio, state and local health officials say.

The designation marks the end of the federal programs that bought tests and vaccines to distribute to the public for free.

But free tests and vaccines will remain available in Ohio until the federal and state stockpiles run out, health officials said. Starting probably in the fall of 2024, people will deal directly with their insurance to pay for necessary shots, supplies and treatments.

In Cleveland, the end of the designation will allow officials to pivot to paying attention to other public health issues, said Cleveland Department of Public Health Director Dr. David Margolius.

"We have to treat more than just COVID as a crisis in our country," he said. "We know that poverty is the main cause of premature mortality, taking the lives of folks too early. So, if we bring that same energy that we brought to COVID to these other issues, smoking, lead poisoning, fentanyl overdoses, kind of just the overall effects of poverty on our community, we'll all be better because of it."

Despite the end of the health emergency, COVID-19 remains a concern, said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff during a press conference Thursday.

"We're continuing to see deaths, 40 to 50 people every week, sadly, are dying from COVID-19," he said, adding residents should get booster vaccines as new strains emerge.

Despite the need for continued vigilance, Vanderhoff said was pleased by Ohio's response to the pandemic.

"Ohio had one of the lowest per-capita COVID-19 death rates in the U.S. and ranked 8th out of 50 states and D.C.," he said.

Monitoring of COVID-19 is essential to avoid the next outbreak, targeting facilities where large numbers of people live in close quarters, said Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda.

"What we're going to try to really do ... is make sure that we keep close monitoring of those high-risk situations: schools, daycares, correctional facilities, halfway houses, drug treatment centers," she said. "Anywhere people live together, they could potentially have spread" of the virus.

The wastewater monitoring system developed during the pandemic will help officials keep an eye out for pathogens and anticipate problems, Margolius said.

"Thanks to the Ohio Department of Health and federal surveillance, we will know when the next surge is coming if it does come," he said.

Despite the end of the health emergency, the state will keep many of the systems in place it used to respond to the pandemic, Vanderhoff said.

"While we don't know everything about exactly how the transition will play out moving from a declared health emergency to a new state of dealing with COVID-19, we are not disbanding our public health response capabilities or resources," he said.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.