By Ahmed Aboulenein
(Reuters) -The U.S. health department on Wednesday extended the COVID-19 pandemic's status as a public health emergency, allowing millions of Americans to continue receiving free tests, vaccines and treatments.
The emergency was first declared in January 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began, and has been renewed each quarter since then. It was due to end this week.
The increased availability of vaccines and medications has significantly diminished the COVID-19 pandemic's toll since early in President Joe Biden's term, when more than 3,000 Americans per day were dying.
But hundreds of people a day continue to die from the coronavirus in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Daily U.S. cases, while well below last January's record Omicron surge levels, have climbed up to an average of over 67,000 as of Jan. 4, with some 390 COVID-related deaths a day, according to the latest CDC data.
Biden administration officials had said in November that the possibility of a winter surge in COVID cases and the need for more time to transition to a private market for the sale of tests, vaccines and treatments were two factors that contributed to the decision not to end the emergency status in January.
When it expires, private insurance and government health plans will take on COVID healthcare costs for most Americans.
(Reporting by Leroy Leo in Bengaluru and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Bill Berkrot and Devika Syamnath)