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California lays out shifting pandemic response as case rates drop

Michelle Schuermann's 2nd grade class at Del Dayo Elementary works on an art lesson Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.
Andrew Nixon
Michelle Schuermann's 2nd grade class at Del Dayo Elementary works on an art lesson Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Standing in a Southern California warehouse filled with boxes of COVID-19 supplies, Newsom said that the state is moving out of the pandemic phase and into “a phase which should allow you confidence that we are not walking away. That we’re taking the lessons learned and we’re leaning into the future.”

“There are those that prefer to walk away, to deny the realities of the last few years, let the virus continue to take its course,” Newsom said. “That’s not the approach we’re arguing for. We are taking a more sensible and I would argue sustainable health care approach based on the lessons learned to prepare for the unknown."

In this new so-called “SMARTER” plan — an acronym that stands for shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and Rx, or treatment — the state is preparing a stockpile of critical resources. Specifically, the state wants a stockpile of 75 million masks, 30 million over-the-counter tests, thousands of ventilators, and 3,000 additional healthcare staff in case of case and hospital surges.

California is also creating an assessment and action unit that consists of epidemiologists, the state Office of Emergency Services and the state Department of Public Health. The group would “monitor the data and frontline conditions in real-time to ensure California is ready to respond to new and emerging variants and changing conditions.”

“The journey we’ve been on underscores that we can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for it,” Newsom said.

Earlier this week, state health secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced that face coverings will still be required in schools through at least the end of February. Though, he said the state “anticipates” dropping the school mask mandate after reevaluating the data on Feb. 28 — but the shift would not happen immediately.

The state also ended its indoor mask mandate for fully-vaccinated residents earlier this week, but some restrictions remain in place for large gatherings, workplaces and medical settings. Ghaly said those restrictions would be revisited at a later date.

“We are not out of the woods,” Ghaly said Thursday. “We are just more familiar with the woods and don't need to look awfully afraid of what's behind the next tree.”

While Ghaly said that there will be no changes for residents this week, he added this new plan will help the state “keep focused on what the virus brings and adapt accordingly.”

“We should no longer pretend that we have all the answers or that we can learn exactly the right things from surges,” Ghaly said.

Ghaly did not lay out specific metrics to follow, but said the state’s response to potential future waves of COVID-19 would depend on the type and impact of new variants.

Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said that states should be phasing out of their pandemic response strategies and into endemic ones.

“We are in an endemic phase, definitely,” Mokdad said. “An endemic phase doesn't mean that the COVID-19 will disappear. It will be with us for a long time. Look at the Spanish flu, H1N1. We still have H1N1.”

California state of emergency remains in place

Also on Thursday, state Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins (D–San Diego) announced that a resolution to terminate the COVID-19 state of emergency would get its first hearing next month.

“I understand we are all tired of living life in an emergency, but ending the emergency must be done responsibly to ensure there are no unintended consequences so we can continue to meet the need of our state’s residents in an unpredictable future,” Atkins said in a statement.

A state of emergency is a government declaration that allows public officials to change usual operations and order actions to respond to an unfolding crisis. It also helps the state government access federal aid, unlock certain state resources and work with county and local officials to coordinate emergency responses on a regional level.

The resolution is authored by Sen. Melissa Melendez (R–Lake Elsinore), one of a handful of Republican lawmakers who have been pushing for months to end the state of emergency Newsom declared on March 4, 2020. Last week, GOP lawmakers argued that since Los Angeles hosted 70,000 people at the Super Bowl, the statewide emergency is no longer appropriate.

When asked about the bill hearing, Ghaly said the state of emergency has allowed the Newsom administration to quickly get resources to hospitals and distribute vaccines last year.

“The state of emergency has given us many tools that we would otherwise not have,” Ghaly said. “And I hope all Californians who are debating … recognize that the state of emergency provides a set of opportunities and options for the state to move forward and protect our populations.”

Under the emergency, Newsom was able to broker deals for millions of masks early in the pandemic at a time when states were scrambling to obtain personal protective equipment from the federal government and other markets.

The governor also awarded a number of no-bid contracts of up to a billion dollars. A series of CapRadio investigations found that some of those contracts went to Newsom donors. While there was no evidence to suggest the contracts broke the law, government ethics experts said even the appearance of wrongdoing raises serious red flags and threatens to erode public trust.

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