Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced an expansion of coronavirus testing capability throughout California, saying the findings will be critical to deciding when to ease the state’s strict stay-at-home order and allow people to return to work.
Newsom’s announcement comes as more and more cities and counties have urged him to modify the restrictions, which they say have put local economies on the brink of ruin. The governor has thus far resisted, saying COVID-19 remains a serious and growing health threat and loosening his statewide order prematurely could lead to a second wave of infections and fatalities.
But Newsom said the prospect of lifting the restrictions becomes more feasible with widespread testing. The data will increase the ability of public health officials to closely track potential cases, one of the most essential requirements for California to ease into the next phase of the pandemic while still stemming the spread of the virus.
The governor announced several new efforts to increase testing in California, noting that President Donald Trump committed in a phone call Wednesday to providing California with critically needed specimen swaps for coronavirus testing, which have been in short supply. Newsom said 100,000 swabs are expected to arrive in California this week and 250,000 next week.
The governor said that six new testing sites will become operational soon, prioritizing expanding access to “black and brown communities and focusing on rural communities.” The governor announced that the state made a commitment with laboratories to offer 1.5 million serological tests at 130 facilities.
That would substantially increase California’s coronavirus testing capabilities, which currently average 14,500 per day among all public and private medical labs. The Newsom administration’s target is for 25,000 tests per day by the end of April and up to 80,000 daily tests in the near future.
This week, California became the first state to recommend tests for asymptomatic people living or working in high-risk settings such as nursing homes and prisons, a significant first step toward establishing widespread coronavirus testing in California to identify and isolate every coronavirus case.
The Newsom administration last week highlighted six key indicators for altering the governor’s stay-at-home order that, along with increased testing, include the ability to prevent infection of high-risk people, prepare hospitals to handle surges, develop therapies to meet demand, ensure schools, businesses and childcare facilities can support social distancing, and develop guidelines for when to ask Californians to stay home again if necessary. The governor has declined to say when he might begin to modify his order and ease restrictions.
“I deeply recognize deeply understand the desire for people to hear directly from the administration from the state, and its leadership, about the answer to when, when can we go back to some semblance of normalcy,” Newsom said during a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday. “While the vast majority of you I think recognize that decision needs to be guided on the basis of the virus and its spread decisions on the basis, always first and foremost of public health.”
Newsom laid out a goal of training 10,000 people, including some existing state workers, to support local counties to track COVID-19 cases and anyone who may have come in contact with those individuals.
“The good news is, we believe we have the capacity to build an army of tracers, beginning with a goal of 10,000,” Newsom said.
Newsom also announced that the California hospital system is in sufficient shape for the state to begin lifting restrictions on other procedures at the medical facilities.
“We are in a position today to begin to pull back and lean in by beginning to schedule surgeries, once again, throughout not only our hospital system but our broader health care delivery system,” Newsom said.
But Newsom’s methodical approach comes as governors in other states, including Colorado, Texas and Georgia, already have announced plans to ease their stay-at-home restrictions.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday said his state will transition to a “Safer at Home” phase at the end of the month, which will urge people to stay home and continue to practice social distancing and allow small businesses including hair salons and barbershops to eventually reopen if they adhere to certain health guidelines.
Polis said he hopes bars and restaurants could reopen in mid-May, but that would be contingent on what happens after the stay-at-home directive is lifted.
Trump also has openly encouraged demonstrators protesting state stay-at-home orders throughout the county, and often expresses an eagerness to reopen the American economy that has plummeted into recession due to the virus outbreak.
Still, after several Southern states took action this week to lift stay-at-home orders, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Americans against returning too quickly to life as it was before the pandemic would “backfire” and lead to a resurgence of the virus.
In his daily briefings, Newsom also has warned about the consequences of easing the restrictions too soon. Newsom said Californians have been successful in slowing spread of the virus by adhering to orders to stay at home and maintain social distancing _ but infections continue to be on the rise.
On Tuesday, Newsom cited administration statistics from the previous 24-hour period showing a 3.3% increase in hospitalizations and a 3.8% increase in patients being treated in intensive care wards.
“Those numbers went up. They didn’t go down,” Newsom said. “So I caution those, including local elected officials, that practicing physical distancing has worked to keep those numbers relatively modest in terms of growth. But if we pull back too quickly, those numbers will go through the roof.”
Newsom said that if restrictions are eased in a few counties or cities that have been less affected by the pandemic, cases could quickly surge if infected people from other parts of the state pass through those areas. He said that it’s critical to the wellbeing of all Californians to have a statewide, health-based strategy to return to some sense of normalcy.
Officials in San Luis Obispo County asked the governor to allow them to ease their stay-at-home rules since they were in a much better position than coronavirus hotspots such as Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. In a letter to Newsom, local officials said the county’s infection rate had been on the decline for three weeks and COVID-19-related hospitalizations dropped dramatically. At the beginning of this week, the county reported 130 positive cases, with 111 fully recovered, three people in the hospital and one death.
They promised to ease the restrictions in a measured way that ensured that public health would not be endangered, but Newsom has not been swayed thus far.
Newsom appeared more deferential to local officials at the outset of the pandemic. That included allowing cities and counties to decide how to enforce the stay-at-home order and whether or not to require residents to wear face coverings when shopping for groceries or for other essential needs.
After Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti earlier this month required residents to wear face coverings when shopping, Newsom praised the decision though he declined to issue an executive order requiring similar precautions statewide.
“Localism is determinative,” Newsom said during an April 7 briefing. “We really look for leadership at the local level and Mayor Garcetti has been providing that … and you’re seeing that kind of leadership manifest all across the state where people are taking our baseline recommendations and guidance and they are conditioning, based on local realities, them even further.”
By Phil Willon and Taryn Luna, Los Angeles Times