California lifted a stay-at-home order in the 13-county Sacramento region on Tuesday as hospital conditions improved, a rare turn of good news as the state pushes through what Gov. Gavin Newsom called “its most intense surge” of the coronavirus.
The order imposed Dec. 10 banned gatherings outside a household and shuttered or restricted many businesses. With virus cases and hospitalizations more stable now, the region can resume outdoor dining and worship services, reopen hair and nail salons and other businesses, and increase capacity at retailers Gatherings of up to three households are allowed.
Newsom made the announcement in a social mediapost that remined people to wear masks, stay home as much as possible and offered the hopeful promise: “There is a light at the end of this tunnel."
Three of the state's five regions — the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California — remain under the stay-at-home order because their intensive care capacity at hospitals is severely limited.
California has seen an enormous surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths since Thanksgiving. The state is averaging 42,000 new virus cases a day and recorded 3,500 virus deaths in the last week. On Monday the death toll topped 30,000 since the pandemic began.
Health officials are warning that hospitalizations and deaths are likely to continue to increase as people who contracted the virus during the holidays get sicker.
To try to get the virus in check California, is moving more quickly to distribute vaccines. Newsom set a goal last week of delivering 1 million doses by Friday. A state advisory board met Tuesday to discuss new federal guidelines that urge states to immediately start vaccinating a wider group of people.
Newsom imposed the nation's first statewide stay-at-home order in March. It was lifted in the spring when cases fell but more restrictions were imposed during a summertime spike.
A huge surge in late fall prompted the Newsom administration to divide the state into five regions in December and impose a new stay-at-home order in four of them when their ICU capacity dropped below 15%. Only rural Northern California remained out of the order.
The Sacramento region’s ICU capacity now sits at 9.4% but it is projected to rise above 15% in the next four weeks, prompting the state to lift the order. The region includes El Dorado County, home to Lake Tahoe, a tourism hot spot that even with the restrictions saw large crowds during the holidays.
Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, have credited the state-at-home order with limiting the severity of the outbreak but some experts question how much benefit was derived.
“What the stay-at-home orders were meant to do is keep families that don’t live together separated. Instead, over the last few months, you’ve had people getting together. You’ve had small social gatherings indoors,” said Dr. Brad Pollock, associate dean for public health sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine. “I wouldn’t say the stay-at-home orders have been futile, but they probably haven’t had a huge impact on what’s actually happened with the transmission patterns."
Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer of Sutter County in the Sacramento region acknowledged as much when he reacted to the order being lifted.
“It’s exciting, but at the same time, who adheres to it?” he said.
Shon Harris, a city councilman in Yuba City, said he was surprised Newsom lifted the order, calling it “baby steps back to the old normal.” But he encouraged people to “take COVID seriously, take the precautions seriously (and) abide by them.”
“They’ve given us an inch. We don’t want to take a mile and get greedy,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state continued its drive to administer nearly 1.5 million vaccine doses by Friday, still a small portion of what's needed to achieve herd immunity in the state of nearly 40 million people. Several counties announced they would open mass vaccination sites, including at Dodger Stadium, Disneyland and Cal Expo, an outdoor venue in Sacramento.
But the effort to quickly ramp up vaccinations, including through new rules by the federal government, further led to confusion and varying approaches by county. California has been focused on vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents first, with people over 75 and people at risk of getting the virus at work, like teachers or agriculture workers, in the next tier. UC Davis Medical Center on Tuesday began giving the vaccine to people over 75.
The federal government, meanwhile, said vaccinations should be available to anyone older than 65 and younger people with certain health conditions. Orange County said it would swiftly move to vaccinate people 65 and up.
But a meeting of the state's Community Vaccine Advisory Committee grew tense as representatives of different groups debated the merits of expanding the vaccine pool beyond the state's guidelines.
“Moving millions of people farther ahead in line by definition means millions of others are farther back in line,” said Mitch Steiger, legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation.
While he said the arguments make sense, he could not support a change that would bump back essential workers, recognizing that for many of his members it means “more of you are going to get sick, more of you are going to die.”
Dr. Michael Wasserman, president of the California Association for Long Term Care Medicine, worried that the state may be moving on to the next tier without first making sure workers and residents of nursing homes, assisted living and group homes are protected first, while others expressed similar fears that the rush to vaccinate the aging could leave behind other workers who had been next in line or those in disadvantaged communities who are harder to reach.
“Sure you’re hitting the gas pedal, but don’t leave us behind,” summarized Charles Bacchi with the California Association of Health Plans, even as he supported concentrating on vaccination the older population. “We just can’t lose sight of that.”
Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco, Amy Taxin in Orange County, and Don Thompson and Adam Beam in Sacramento contributed.