California Lays Out Plan to Live With Covid for the Long-Term, Fight Future Surges and New Variants

Mike Blake | Reuters
  • California's plan aims to pick up rising viral transmission early and rapidly sequence new variants to determine whether vaccines and therapeutics are still effective.
  • The state also aims to rapidly deploy additional testing and hospital staff to regions impacted by an outbreak.
  • The state could reimpose mask mandates depending on the dominant variant and how much disruption it's causing.

California on Thursday laid out a plan that manages Covid as a permanent aspect of life, anticipating future surges and new variants that may require temporary public health measures such as facemasks depending on how much the virus is disrupting economic and social activity.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said California, the largest state economy in the U.S., is shifting out of the crisis mentality that has characterized the pandemic response for the past two years. Newsom said the Golden State must learn to live with the virus by preparing as much as possible for an uncertain future using the tools developed over the past two years.

"We have all come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis — that there is no end date, that there is not a moment where we declare victory," Newsom said during a press conference Thursday.

California's response plan aims to use wastewater surveillance to detect rising viral transmission early, so the state can rapidly identify new variants as they emerge and determine within 45 days if vaccines, tests and therapeutics are effective against the strain. The state would then quickly deploy additional testing and health-care staff to regions impacted by rising transmission, according to the plan

Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the state's response will depend on the dominant Covid variant circulating at any given time, how much disease the variant is causing, and how many people are hospitalized by the strain.

Ghaly did not provide specific triggers that would result in the imposition of public health measures. He said a more deadly variant might require California to focus on infection numbers, while a less virulent strain may demand a focus on hospitalization numbers.

Ghaly said California will probably experience seasonal Covid surges in the fall and winter, and the state will closely monitor whether those surges are caused by new variants of concern or familiar ones. The health secretary said the state could impose temporary, targeted measures such as masks if the particular Covid strain is causing serious disruptions to hospitals and businesses.

"There may need to be a time when we all wear masks to get through certain situations, so we don't overwhelm our health-care delivery system or cripple our businesses," Ghaly told reporters during a teleconference Thursday.

California plans to surge health-care staff by 3,000 within three weeks if needed during an outbreak. The state will also maintain the capacity to administer at least 500,000 Covid tests and 200,000 vaccines daily. California will stockpile 75 million high-quality masks, thousands of ventilators, and procure another 30 million over-the-counter Covid tests, according to Ghaly.

California will also focus on keeping people updated on their vaccines, particularly children who only recently became eligible as well as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, Ghaly said.

The omicron variant caught the federal and state governments by surprise as it stormed the U.S. in December and January, causing an unprecedented level of infection due to the variant's ability dodge immunity from vaccination and prior infection. Hospitals faced staffing shortages as waiting rooms flooded with new patients, and the public struggled to get tested as the sudden spike in demand left pharmacy shelves empty.

As the omicron wave subsides, state governments are easing public health measures and looking for ways to provide the public with a semblance of normalcy while preparing for an uncertain future.

California let its universal indoor mask mandate expire on Tuesday. The vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks indoors, though state health officials strongly encourage them to do so. People who are unvaccinated, on the other hand, are still required to wear masks when they enter indoor public places such as shops, restaurants and theaters.

California's mask mandate for schools remains in effect. State health officials will evaluate what the pandemic looks like in California at the end of the month and provide a timeframe for when the school mask mandate will shift to a recommendation, Ghaly said earlier this week.

California is reporting a seven-day average of about 13,800 new Covid cases per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, down 61% over the past week. Average cases in the state hit a pandemic peak of more than 123,000 per day on Jan. 16.

Nearly 8,500 patients are currently in California hospitals with Covid, according to a seven-day average of data from the Department of Health and Human Services as of Thursday. That's down 22% over the past week and about half of peak omicron levels seen in late January. The state's pandemic high of more than 23,600 hospitalized Covid patients was set on Jan. 14 of 2021.

-- CNBC's Nate Rattner contributed to this report.

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