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Health and Medicine

California teeters on edge of more COVID shutdowns

Image of Californians waiting in line for COVID-19 tests.
Raquel Natalicchio | CalMatters
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Long lines of people wait for more than two hours for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles on Jan. 5, 2022.

How long will California be able to avoid shutdowns of schools, health care facilities and businesses if the omicron wave doesn’t peak soon?

Starting today, Sonoma County is banning large gatherings for the next month. Los Angeles County on Tuesday urged residents to postpone nonessential gatherings and avoid some activities. The state prison system on Saturday suspended in-person visits as COVID surges among employees and inmates. A growing number of hospitals are cancelling or postponing certain surgeries.

Sound familiar?

Although both Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, have repeatedly stressed that California doesn’t foresee further COVID-related shutdowns, they’re happening anyway as more people enter quarantine — raising questions about how long the state will be able to keep overburdened and understaffed schools, health care facilities and businesses open if the omicron wave doesn’t peak soon.

Newsom on Tuesday signed an executive order that allows schools through March 31 to extend substitute teachers’ assignments, ease the pathway for retired educators to return to classrooms, and expedite the hiring of short-term substitute teachers.

  • Newsom: “I think the surgeon general under the Obama administration said the most significant preventable disease inthis country is loneliness, social isolation. My gosh, that was before COVID. And our kids have lost a connection to their friends, their
    community, to the normalcy of the cadence of life. … I’m very, very sensitive to this and the learning opportunities that are lost because kids are not safely in school.”

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest, reopened Tuesday — but, with more than 62,000 students and staff testing positive for COVID, nearly 2,000 district employees had to step in to keep things running. Hayward Unified on Monday moved online for at least a week after more than 500 students tested positive and teachers were absent from more than half of classrooms. Palo Alto managed to avoid shuttering Monday only after 450 parent volunteers filled positions ranging from custodians to in-classroom roles; parents have also been asked to help supervise classrooms in Sacramento City Unified.

Meanwhile, students and teachers in both Oakland and San Francisco Unified are threatening sickouts, saying they won’t show up to school without heightened health and safety protocols. West Contra Costa Unified, which reopened Tuesday after closing for two days with no instruction, is now requiring employees to wear KN95 masks and students to wear surgical masks.

The situation is similarly dire in other workplaces. More than 800 of 12,200 Los Angeles Police Department employees are out sick this week, and COVID-positive officers tend to be gone for an average of 24 days, Chief Michel Moore said. Santa Clara County on Monday backed off from a booster mandate for health care workers at the request of already strained hospitals. And nearly 4,000 prison workers were COVID-positive on Tuesday, a more than 212% increase from the beginning of the month.

Restaurants are also shuttering across the state, and the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Rafael recently joined 21 others across the country in begging Congress to provide emergency relief to stave off permanent closures and “catastrophic” economic impacts.

Copyright 2022, CalMatters