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California adopts ‘endemic’ virus policy

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA (AP) – California became the first state to formally shift to an “endemic” approach to the coronavirus with Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement on Thursday of a plan that emphasises prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.

The milestone, nearly two years in the making, envisions a return to a more normal existence with the help of a variety of initiatives and billions in new spending.

“We are moving past the crisis phase into a phase where we will work to live with this virus,” he said during a news conference from a state warehouse brimming with pandemic supplies in Fontana, east of Los Angeles.

The first-term Democrat, who last year survived a recall election driven by critics of his governance during the pandemic, promised the state’s nearly 40 million residents that as the Omicron surge fades, “we’re going to keep them safe and we’re going to stay on top of this”.

A disease reaches the endemic stage when the virus still exists in a community but becomes manageable as immunity builds.

But there will be no definitive turn of the switch, the Democratic governor said, unlike the case with Wednesday’s lifting of the state’s indoor masking requirements or an announcement coming on February 28 of when precisely schoolchildren can stop wearing face coverings.

Newsom’s plan sets specific goals, such as stockpiling 75 million masks, establishing the infrastructure to provide up to 200,000 vaccinations and 500,000 tests a day in the event of an outbreak, and adding 3,000 medical workers within three weeks in surge areas.

Newsom’s administration came up with a shorthand acronym to capsulise key elements of its new approach: SMARTER. The letters stand for Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education and Rx, a reference to improving treatments for COVID-19.

An epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, Dr Jeffrey Klausner said while some may argue these should have come sooner, he believes “the timing is right on”.

“Surveillance, testing, vaccination and treatment make the context very different and make it appropriate to shift our response from a pandemic response of trying to do everything possible, to a more rational response to try to implement things that we have strong evidence that work,” Klausner said.

The plan includes increased monitoring of virus remnants in wastewater to watch for the first signs of a surge. Masks won’t be required but will be encouraged in many settings.

California’s health secretary Dr Mark Ghaly, said one of the goals is to avoid business closures and other far-reaching mandates. However, he said the state’s requirement that schoolchildren be vaccinated against coronavirus by fall remains in effect.

The plan includes new education, to fight misinformation and disinformation and help interpret ever-evolving precautions for a confused public whiplashed by safeguards that seemingly shift by the day and vary across county lines.

In coordination with the federal government, it calls for a first-in-the-nation study of the pandemic’s direct and indirect impacts long-term on both people and communities.

All this will cost billions, much of it already outlined in the pandemic response package Newsom sought as part of his budget last month. That includes USD1.9 million that lawmakers already approved to boost staffing at hospitals and increase coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution, as well as existing money and anticipated federal funds.

His proposed budget also includes USD1.7 billion to beef up the state’s healthcare workforce, with more investment in increased laboratory testing capacity, data collection and outbreak investigation.


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