How California turned the corner on COVID-19
While COVID-19 infections spike uncontrollably across the country, California has turned the corner.
After a brutal summer as one of the worst coronavirus hot spots, the most populous state in the country is once again being touted as a success story.
Hospitalizations are down, and positivity rates have declined to some of the lowest they’ve been. The 14-day positivity rate is just 2.6 percent, and hospitalizations have shrunk from a peak of more than 7,100 in late July to 2,351 as of Thursday.
“Many states across the nation, and frankly nations across the globe, are facing new waves of cases,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said during his weekly briefing.
“We’re seeing testing impacts, hospitalizations, challenges in some of the hospitals around the nation, things that during the summer we certainly faced here in California, but because of our working together, [they] came down nicely. So far, we have not been facing those increases,” Ghaly said.
Experts say state officials learned from the past mistake of reopening too quickly in the spring and credit Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) new tiered approach to reopening.
After being proactive in issuing the country’s first statewide stay-at-home order, Newsom let the 58 individual counties make their own reopening decisions, beginning in early May.
The result was disastrous, as local governments rushed ahead to reopen before they were ready.
Newsom’s plan initially allowed for limited retail stores to open with capacity and physical distancing requirements but in a matter of weeks quickly allowed counties to open dine-in restaurants, gyms, nail salons and religious services.
New infections spiked to almost 7,000 cases a day. Increases in hospitalizations and ICU admissions soon followed.
Large crowds around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July also contributed to the increases, as people gathered without masks or physical distancing.
Newsom decided he’d seen enough and began reimposing restrictions. As cases skyrocketed in July, he closed bars, zoos and museums as well as indoor dining statewide to curb the spread.
At the end of August, he unveiled a new system that put every county into one of four color-coded tiers based on how prevalent COVID-19 is in each county and the extent of community spread.
Each tier includes specifics on business openings, and counties must remain in a tier for at least three weeks before moving forward.
If a county moves into a new tier but fails to meet the criteria, it will be bumped back down. Counties can also decide to keep restrictions even if the state allows them to move to a lower tier.
“Basically, they took it out of the hands of the locals and moved it to the state level,” said George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “Local health officers can grant waivers for elementary schools to reopen, but that’s about it.”
John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley, said some people may fault Newsom’s approach for taking away the freedoms of individual counties, but leaving the rules open to interpretation was what got the state in trouble in the first place.
“I think the state governance has been pretty effective, and the messaging has been very consistent, particularly since mid-August, and that consistency has really helped,” Swartzberg said. “It’s a very important contrast with the federal government, where the messaging has been horrific.”
Swartzberg said officials realized they messed up badly in the spring and did not want to repeat those mistakes.
“We had that horrific experience in July and part of August, so we learned this time around, and I think the guidelines really force us not to open up as quickly,” Swartzberg said.
Not everyone has accepted the stringent plans, and Newsom’s administration has been getting pushback, particularly from resorts and theme parks. The industry is considering a lawsuit.
Disneyland, Universal Studios and other large parks this week decried new guidance from the governor that they said would essentially keep them closed long into 2021.
Under the new guidance, the parks won’t be allowed to reopen until their respective counties reach the state’s least restrictive reopening tier.
Orange County, home to Disneyland, is currently in the second-highest tier.
Los Angeles County, where Universal Studios is located, is in the most restrictive tier.
But state officials don’t want a repeat of the summer and are trying to strike a balance on reopening.
Experts are warning the public not to get complacent, as the winter could quickly erase any gains that have been made.
“Put it this way. California is doing well in the sense of we’re not trending up. It’s flat. But we’re still having 3,000 cases a day,” Rutherford said.
“But it could tip any day. You’re one college reopening away, you’re one high school beer party away from having another big run of cases,” Rutherford said.