California health officials have unveiled a ‘next phase’ pandemic playbook for the most populous U.S. state on Thursday that will treat the coronavirus as a manageable risk that “will stick with us for a while, if not forever,” rather than an emergency.
The plan, which includes steps to promote vaccines, stockpile medical supplies and mount an aggressive assault on misinformation, will mark a new chapter in the response to the coronavirus, which has infected at least one in five Californians and claimed the lives of more of 83,000 states. residents.
It’s also an acknowledgment that “we’re going to live with this,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in an interview ahead of the announcement.
“We’re not in the denial hell that has been the last two years,” he said. But, he added, “It’s not like World War II, where we can have a ticker tape parade and announce the end.”
A towering spike in new coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant peaked in the state in mid-January and has since receded, leaving the daily average roughly where it was at the end of last summer, at about 25,000 new cases per day. The disappearance of the outbreak was seen as a signal to ease restrictions across the country.
About this data
Sources: National and local health agencies (cases, deaths); US Department of Health and Human Services (hospitalizations).
Earlier this week, Newsom eased California’s indoor mask requirements for those vaccinated, and state health officials said they would review school mask mandates at the end of the month of February. Los Angeles County lifted its outdoor mask mandate, Disneyland and other companies relaxed their mask rules for vaccinated people, and music festivals Coachella and Stagecoach announced they would not require attendees wear masks, get vaccinated or take a test when the events take place this spring.
California’s new vision for the virus, outlined in a briefing by the state’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, will continue to emphasize vaccines and boosters, with extensions to school-based vaccinations, preparations to vaccinate children under 5 when they become eligible, and the potential reassessment of vaccine needs to take into account the possibility of some natural immunity against previous infection, among other targets. Scientists have warned that protection may diminish over time and that future variants may better circumvent defenses.
Mask requirements would be relaxed or tightened as needed, depending on the severity and trajectory of infections, according to the new plan. Strategic stocks would be modernized and strengthened.
The plan would expand sewage monitoring testing and genomic sequencing; expanding access to Covid-19 treatments; and creating a special office of community partnerships that would send hundreds of workers into immigrant, disadvantaged and hard-to-reach communities to fight misinformation and provide access to care.
The governor said that for now, the state will continue to operate under emergency clearance, allowing health officials to act quickly in the event of a further outbreak. But he said his goal was to lift the state of emergency as soon as possible.
Other priorities would include addressing labor shortages in hospitals and nursing homes, studying the impact of the virus on communities, expanding the use of smartphone technology to alert people to possible exposure to the virus; and provide incentives for innovations in air testing and filtration.
Although 70% of state residents have been fully vaccinated, that’s a long way from reaching “herd immunity,” a level where so few people remain vulnerable to the virus that it can’t spread easily. Most experts believe herd immunity to the coronavirus is now likely out of reach.
Statewide surveys show that Californians generally support the governor’s pandemic policies, which have limited Covid deaths to a per capita rate significantly lower than in Florida, Texas or the United States as a whole.
But public patience has frayed since Mr Newsom announced the country’s first stay-at-home order of 2020, triggering a wave of restrictions. A local recall election, fueled by anger over pandemic rules and amplified by misinformation, has placed members of a far-right militia under the apparent control of the Board of Supervisors in rural Shasta County. And one survey published this week by the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies found that Mr. Newsom’s overall approval rating had fallen from 64% in 2020 to 48% now.
“Right now we’re really anxious,” Mr Newsom said. “Many of us are suspicious. And that affects us deeply throughout our existence, not just this pandemic.”
The state’s updated approach, he added, aims to ease that anxiety with “more permanent” guidelines that will help policymakers better navigate the next wave.
Health experts who got a first look at the new plan gave it high marks, though some urged the state to be bolder, especially on vaccinations. “California is better than average,” said Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, “but that’s not saying much.”