When will we go back to normal? What needs to happen to lift California’s coronavirus orders


Any change will hinge on long-time problem: Testing

Even as public health officials cautiously cheer the apparent success of efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus, there is still no end in sight for the shelter in place orders that have upended daily life for millions across the country.

That’s because the questions of when and how life in the Bay Area and elsewhere will return to something like normal hinge in large part on the problem that has hampered the United States’ response to COVID-19 from the beginning: The need to substantially ramp up testing for the deadly virus.

And while California has seen far fewer deaths than other parts of the country, Gov. Gavin Newsom cautioned that moving too quickly, and without adequate testing, to loosen the orders he and others credit with “flattening the curve” of new infections risks undoing the progress the state has made.

“If at any moment we pull back, you could see that curve go back up,” Newsom said, urging people not to gather in person for religious services as Passover begins and Easter weekend approaches. “Let’s not step back, let’s continue to move forward.”

Underscoring that California’s fight to contain coronavirus is far from over, data compiled by this news organization showed 56 new deaths from COVID-19, an 12.5 percent increase over the day before that brings the state’s death toll to 503. According to Newsom, there were smaller increases in the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care units statewide, up 4.2 percent day-over-day, to 1,154, and in hospital admissions, which were up 3.9 percent, to 2,714.

In total, 19,000 Californians had tested positive for coronavirus as of Wednesday.

In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County public health officials announced three more deaths from coronavirus, bringing the toll there to 46 Wednesday, as well as 95 new confirmed cases, for a total of 1,390. Alameda County reported 39 new cases and one new death, for a total of 674 and 16, respectively. Meanwhile, in San Francisco the city confirmed 676 cases and recorded its 10th death on Wednesday. Contra Costa County’s totals grew to 462 confirmed cases, though its number of deaths stayed flat at seven, and San Mateo County reported a total of 617 cases and no new deaths, keeping its toll at 21.

No one knows when it will be safe for counties and states to lift the orders that have kept millions isolated in their homes.

“It depends on you — it depends on 40 million others in the state of California and their commitment to following through on the stay-at-home orders,” Newsom said at his daily press briefing Wednesday.

“We have to be vigilant as we do that,” he added.

Key to that effort will be more testing.

Whenever things start moving back toward normal, there won’t be an overnight switch from isolation to business as usual, with crowded malls and packed baseball stadiums, said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Instead, the process will be more gradual: clothing stores might reopen with limits on how many customers can be inside, and people might eat in restaurants again, but at tables spaced six feet apart from other diners.

At the same time, Troisi said, public health officials will need to conduct extensive testing to determine whether coronavirus is reseeding in the Bay Area as more people move around, which could lead agencies to reinstate limits on social contact.

“Until we have enough testing, we just don’t know what’s going on in the community,” Troisi said. Extensive testing, she added, is “the eyes of epidemiologists.”

Tests that quickly turn around accurate results will need to be widely available, to allow officials to monitor the virus in real time, Troisi said. Of course, that’s the same message epidemiologists have been sounding throughout the outbreak — but despite efforts to ramp up testing, California has a long way to go.

“It’s been a couple of months and we still don’t have it,” Troisi added.

Across California and the Bay Area, nursing homes, whose residents are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus, remain hot spots for the illness.

Public health officials announced Wednesday that six residents of a single Hayward facility, Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center, had died from COVID-19, while 59 residents and staff there have tested positive for coronavirus. A skilled nursing facility in Orinda has recorded 50 positive tests among its residents and staff.

While other cities and states have seen alarming racial disparities in COVID-19 fatalities — 72 percent of those who have died from coronavirus in Chicago are black, despite African-Americans making up 30 percent of that city’s population, for instance — Newsom said California has so far not seen those same disparities. He cautioned, though, that the state has received race-specific data for less than 40 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Of those cases, African-Americans, make up 6 percent of positive tests and 3 percent of deaths, Newsom said; 7 percent of California residents are black. Latinos, who make up 39 percent of Californians, account for 30 percent of cases and 29 percent of deaths.

“In every category, we are doing more to be culturally competent in terms of our testing, our outreach, our communication and our capacity to deliver care to individuals that do get tested,” Newsom said.

Newsom also said Wednesday that he has asked the state legislature to approve $1.4 billion worth of spending from the state’s emergency fund to secure masks and other pieces of protective equipment for health care workers and other essential employees, such as those at grocery stores.

It would be an effort, Newsom said, to “procure at a scale that only California can,” by striking deals with companies and nonprofits to secure some 150 million N95 masks and 50 million surgical masks each month.

Newsom and other governors have complained for weeks that they have been forced to bid against one another for scarce and expensive supplies of masks and other protective equipment. Asked whether his plan risks vacuuming up more of those supplies, Newsom said the state can divert products to other parts of the country that are in more dire need, noting California recently shipped ventilators to Illinois and New York.

And, he said, the effort will boost production, citing as one example a company’s work to sterilize tens of thousands of N95 masks each day so they can be reused.“We are increasing supplies, not taking away a limited number of supplies,” he said.

When will we go back to normal? What needs to happen to lift California’s coronavirus orders

By NICO SAVIDGE | nsavidge@bayareanewsgroup.com | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: April 8, 2020 at 6:26 p.m. | UPDATED: April 9, 2020 at 4:04 a.m.