SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California became the first state to formally shift to an “endemic” approach to the coronavirus with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Thursday of a plan that emphasizes prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.
This milestone took nearly two years to reach. It involves a range of initiatives, billions of dollars in new spending, as well as a number of programs to spot spikes and variants more quickly, increase health care workers and stockpile testing, and fight misinformation and false claims.
“We are moving past the crisis phase into a phase where we will work to live with this virus,” he said during a news conference from a state warehouse brimming with pandemic supplies in Fontana, east of Los Angeles.
The first-term Democrat, who last year survived a recall election driven by critics of his governance during the pandemic, promised the state’s nearly 40 million residents that as the omicron surge fades, “we’re going to keep them safe and we’re going to stay on top of this.”
When the disease has reached an endemic level, it is still present in the community. However, the illness becomes manageable over time as immunity increases. But there will be no definitive turn of the switch, the Democratic governor said, unlike the case with Wednesday’s lifting of the state’s indoor masking requirements or an announcement coming Feb. 28 of when precisely schoolchildren can stop wearing face coverings.
And there will be no immediate lifting of the dozens of remaining executive emergency orders that have helped run the state since Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-home order in March 2020.
“This pandemic won’t have a defined end. There’s no finish line,” Newsom said.
On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an epidemic. Omicron is slowly disappearing in some parts of the globe so countries are beginning to plan for the next endemic phase. No state, however, has followed the Newsom example and presented a comprehensive forward-looking strategy.
Republicans have been frequent critics of Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus and were quick to disparage his latest effort. State GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson called it “an extra-large helping of word salad” and renewed the call to “follow the lead of other blue states and end his state of emergency or lift his school mask mandate.”
Newsom’s plan sets specific goals, such as stockpiling 75 million masks, establishing the infrastructure to provide up to 200,000 vaccinations and 500,000 tests a day in the event of an outbreak, and adding 3,000 medical workers within three weeks in surge areas.
Newsom’s administration came up with a shorthand acronym to capsulize key elements of its new approach: SMARTER. They stand for Shots and Masks, Awareness. Readiness. Testing. Education. And Rx. These letters refer to the improvement of COVID-19 treatments.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, said while some may argue these should have come sooner, he believes “the timing is right on.”
“Surveillance, testing, vaccination, and treatment make the context very different and make it appropriate to shift our response from a pandemic response of trying to do everything possible, to a more rational response to try to implement things that we have strong evidence that work,” Klausner said.
This plan will increase monitoring for virus remnants in wastewater, to monitor for any signs of a surge. Masks won’t be required but will be encouraged in many settings.
Officials will check to see if the virus has changed in higher levels. Federal and state officials will determine within 30 days if the virus responds to current treatments, tests and vaccines.
California’s health secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said one of the goals is to avoid business closures and other far-reaching mandates. However, he said the state’s requirement that schoolchildren be vaccinated against coronavirus by fall remains in effect.
The plan includes new education, including “myth-buster videos” to fight misinformation and disinformation and help interpret ever-evolving precautions for a confused public whiplashed by safeguards that seemingly shift by the day and vary across county lines.
In coordination with the federal government, it calls for a first-in-the-nation study of the pandemic’s direct and indirect impacts long-term on both people and communities.
This will all cost billions. Much of this was already included in Newsom’s budget for the pandemic response package. This includes $1.9million that legislators have already approved for hospitals to increase staffing and coronavirus testing, and vaccine distribution.
His proposed budget also includes $1.7 billion to beef up the state’s health care workforce, with more investment in increased laboratory testing capacity, data collection and outbreak investigation.
Newsom has been criticised for not following his rules at times. However, he defended the use of executive emergency orders that allowed him to bring in medical personnel quickly and distribute over 13 million test kits home to schools.
He said that the number of such orders has fallen from 561 to less than 100 over recent months and that his administration was working closely with legislators to make them obsolete.