California health authorities 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 remain with us for some time, if not forever,” rather than an emergency.
The plan, which includes measures to promote vaccines, stockpile medical supplies and mount an aggressive assault on disinformation, will mark a new chapter in responding to the coronavirus, which has infected one in five Californians and claimed the lives of more than 83,000 state residents.
It is also an acknowledgment that “we’re going to live with this,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in an interview preceding the announcement.
“We’re not in denial of the hell that has been the last two years,” he said. But, he added, “This is not like World War II, where we can have a ticker-tape parade and announce the end.”
A towering spike in new coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant peaked in the state in mid-January and has since receded, leaving the daily average about where it was late last summer, at about 25,000 new cases a day. The fading of the surge has been taken as a signal to ease restrictions around the country.
About this data
Sources: State and local health agencies (cases, deaths); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (hospitalizations).
Earlier this week, Mr. Newsom loosened California’s indoor mask requirements for vaccinated people, and state health officials said they would reconsider school mask mandates at the end of February. Los Angeles County lifted its outdoor mask mandate, Disneyland and other businesses eased their mask rules for vaccinated people, and the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals announced that they would not require attendees to wear masks, be vaccinated or take a test when the events take place this spring.
California’s new view of the virus, outlined in a briefing by the state’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, will continue to emphasize vaccines and boosters, with expansions in school-based vaccination, preparations to vaccinate children younger than 5 when they become eligible, and potential reassessment of vaccine requirements to account for the possibility of some natural immunity from a prior infection, among other targets. Scientists have cautioned that protection may wane over time, and future variants may be better able to sidestep defenses.
Mask requirements would be eased or tightened as required, depending on the severity and trajectory of infections, according to the new plan. Strategic stockpiles would be modernized and bolstered.
The plan would expand wastewater surveillance testing and genomic sequencing; expand access to Covid-19 treatments; and create a special office of community partnerships that would send hundreds of workers into immigrant, disadvantaged and other hard-to-reach communities to combat disinformation and offer access to care.
The governor said that for now, the state would continue to operate under emergency authorization, allowing health officials to move swiftly if there is a new surge. But he said his goal was to unwind the state of emergency as soon as possible.
Other priorities would include addressing worker shortages at hospitals and nursing homes, studying the virus’s impact on communities, expanding the use of smartphone technology to alert people about possible virus exposure; and offering incentives for innovations in testing and air filtration.
Though 70 percent of the state’s residents have been fully vaccinated, that is a far cry from achieving “herd immunity,” a level where so few people remain vulnerable to the virus that it cannot readily spread. Most experts think herd immunity to the coronavirus is now likely out of reach.
Statewide surveys show Californians generally support the governor’s pandemic policies, which have limited Covid deaths to a per capita rate substantially lower than in Florida, Texas or the nation as a whole.
But public patience has frayed since Mr. Newsom announced the nation’s first stay-at-home order in 2020, starting a national wave of restrictions. A local recall election, fueled by anger over pandemic rules and amplified by disinformation, put members of a far-right militia in apparent control of the board of supervisors in rural Shasta County. And a poll released this week by the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies found that Mr. Newsom’s overall approval rating had slipped from 64 percent in 2020 to 48 percent now.
“Right now, we’re really anxious,” said Mr. Newsom. “A lot of us are distrustful. And it’s affecting us in profound ways across our entire existence, not just this pandemic.”
The state’s updated approach, he added, is aimed at softening that anxiety with “more permanent” guidelines that will help policymakers better navigate the next surge.
Health experts who were given an early look at the new plan gave it high marks, although some urged the state to be bolder, particularly on vaccination. “California is better than average,” said Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, “but that’s not saying much.”
The new plan reflects many aspects of the $2.7 billion in pandemic spending in the governor’s proposed budget, and complements a number of bills pending in the legislature.
“Have we been perfect? God, no,” Mr. Newsom said in the interview. “But we’re evolving. We’re getting smart and we’re not walking away.”