Newsom rolls out 'next phase' Covid strategy that relies on rapid response

Instead, the Democratic governor provided a series of levers that the state expects to use when new variants or surges arise.

“We aren’t announcing thresholds of disease transmission that trigger this or that but, rather, we’re announcing what I like to call response metrics that if we need them, these are going to be what keeps us ready for the future,” Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Mark Ghaly said during a briefing with reporters earlier in the day.

California is among a wave of Democratic-led states moving to relax their strictest pandemic protocols as the Omicron-driven surge continues to wane, while still retaining the ability to tighten rules if another unexpected variant takes hold. The latest plan recognizes the public’s increasing pandemic fatigue even in true-blue California, where cameras showed thousands of maskless Super Bowl fans at Los Angeles County’s SoFi Stadium flouting state and local mask rules with impunity.

The state’s strategy boils down to an acronym — “SMARTER” — of aspirational goals: Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education and Rx treatments, and serves as a new blueprint for what it means to be in the “live with it ” phase of the crisis.

California expects to rely on wastewater surveillance throughout the state, as well as respiratory tracking in hospitals and sequencing positive Covid test specimens to detect future variants. When those arise, California would deploy its testing stockpile to regions where the virus is rapidly spreading. The state also would have the ability to deploy 3,000 staff to hospitals within 2-3 weeks and provide additional clinical workers to vaccinate residents.

The state would have to maintain the ability to perform at least 500,000 tests a day through a combination of PCR and antigen tests. Ghaly noted that the state has committed to bring 30 million more at-home tests into California for residents to use, as well as increase its supply of masks by 75 million.

California has already started making its transition to living with a more manageable level of disease. It lifted its statewide mask mandate on Wednesday for vaccinated residents, and the state has dropped certain restrictions imposed at the height of the Omicron surge, including added testing requirements for nursing home visitors.

“We’re gliding into normal; we’re not announcing the normal,” Ghaly said. “This is a state that’s going to keep the tools available and keep our antennas up.”

The new plan recommends publicly encouraging the continued use of masks for unvaccinated individuals, those at risk for severe disease or who are immunocompromised and those with “significant” exposure to Covid-19. It also references an “eventual change to universal school masking,” which Newsom referenced at the briefing.

Ghaly didn’t rule out the possibility of reinstating restrictions if the need arises. “There may be a time when we all wear masks to get through certain situations so we don’t overwhelm our health care delivery systems,” he said.

Newsom last week signed a $1.9 billion state funding package for testing, vaccination, health care capacity and other Covid-related needs.

The state, like the federal government, was caught off guard by the Omicron surge in December and could not provide sufficient tests to students and other residents. The governor’s new plan calls for locating a manufacturer who can provide at-home tests that are less expensive and more reliably available.

Republican lawmakers in California have long been pushing for an end to the governor’s pandemic state of emergency, which gives Newsom greater authority to issue executive orders to address the crisis. A Senate resolution to terminate the state of emergency is set to be heard in committee on March 15.

Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) on Thursday issued a statement that seemed to indicate the emergency status won’t be going away imminently.

“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 needs of our state’s residents in an unpredictable future,” Atkins said.

The emergency declaration allows the state to quickly purchase and distribute Covid test kits to schools, administer vaccines, provide test results, and retain workplace protocols, she added.

Ghaly echoed that sentiment, saying “the state of emerge has given us many tools we would otherwise not have.”

Meanwhile, the Omicron surge continues to plummet, with the state on Thursday reporting continued declining cases and a test positivity rate of 5.7 percent, down from more than 23 percent at the height of the wave.

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