California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced the state’s first step in loosening the restrictive stay-at-home order that has shut down businesses, schools and kept residents inside except for specific tasks.
Hospitals that were once barred from pushing forward so-called elective surgeries, or procedures that could wait, can begin doing those operations again, Newsom said Wednesday during a news conference.
“These are surgeries that, yes, are scheduled, but also are essential: tumors, heart valves,” Newsom said. “If it is delayed, it becomes ultimately denied; if it is delayed, it becomes acute and that fundamentally is a health issue beyond just the issue of the virus.”
The move comes after state, county and city officials have worked for the past month to prepare for a potential surge in coronavirus patients by increasing hospital capacity and setting up temporary hospitals in places like convention centers and defunct sports arenas.
Now, as coronavirus-related hospitalization rates begin to stabilize, state leaders say it’s time to allow Californians to get other health care needs met. But officials warned that if rates of infection begin to rise again, they may pull back on that decision.
“We will be thoughtful and judicious about how we do that,” Newsom said of loosening the restrictions. “We will not overload the system at the peril of not being able to maintain our surge capacity and (we) recognize any time we begin to toggle back and start beginning to open things up, we have to look every day at the data.”
The contagious virus is a new strain of virus, meaning that everyone is susceptible to the illness, known as COVID-19, which causes sometimes deadly respiratory issues.
Though health officials say that a majority of people who get the virus will have mild symptoms, as much as 20 percent of people who are infected will need hospitalization. Because the virus spreads quickly and often before symptoms become apparent, the illness has the potential to overwhelm hospitals across the state.
As of Wednesday, 35,396 Californians had tested positive for the virus while 3,357 were hospitalized and 1,219 of those were in intensive care units, typically on a ventilator.
In Santa Clara County, which emerged as an early hotspot for the virus, 1,962 people have tested positive and 191 are currently hospitalized.
But those numbers only reflect the number of people who have been tested.
While testing across the state has ramped up in recent weeks, it is still far below what state and local officials say is necessary to further loosen the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place and statewide stay-at-home orders that have been in place since mid-March.
As of Wednesday, about 14,500 tests for the virus were being conducted daily across the state. By the end of the month, state officials say they expect that number to rise to 25,000 tests a day. But that still falls short of the state’s goal to get between 60,000 and 80,000 people tested daily to help track and contain the virus.
State officials are working on getting about 10,000 public employees to change their daily duties to help track and trace cases of the virus and alert close contacts that they may have come into contact with someone who could have the virus.
That effort “also allows us to modify our stay-at-home order because we have more confidence that when somebody is infected, or when somebody suspected in our community, that they are going to join us to limit the spread by staying home and isolating or quarantining,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services secretary.
But the biggest impediment to getting those tests done is supplies, and specifically the swabs that medical professionals use to test patients. If California had all of the supplies needed, Newsom estimated about 90,000 tests could be conducted daily across the state.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump promised in a phone call with the governor that the state would get about 100,000 swabs immediately and the state would get another 250,000 swabs to ramp up testing next week. Even more supplies are expected to be shipped the following week.
Meanwhile, health officials are working to expand testing sites, filling in the gaps of what they call “testing deserts,” primarily in rural areas and underserved communities where residents are predominantly people of color.
Alphabet-owned Verily, and OptumServe will open a combined 86 new “end-to-end” testing locations in those areas.
The six Verily testing sites are being launched in partnership with Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and an anonymous donor.
“We know that communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday. “We must ensure that we are deploying testing equitably in an effort to reduce the higher death rates we are seeing in African American and Latino communities.”
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Contact Janice Bitters at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.