California governor outlines new ‘milestones’ before loosening stay-home order
In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds his son Dutch while giving his address at his inauguration in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Californians will remain sheltered in place for weeks and when those restrictions are gradually loosened, life will not likely return entirely to “normal” until there is a vaccine, Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a sobering news conference Tuesday.

State officials are watching multiple “indicators” and are aiming to hit several key milestones that will help them determine when certain restrictions can be loosened as the contagious coronavirus continues to spread — though slower than projected — throughout the state.

The current stay at home order has mandated many businesses closed, shuttered schools and kept people inside except for essential tasks. The milestones officials say are needed to lift some of those restrictions include increased testing and tracking capacity, bulking up hospital capacity and protective supplies as well as working with schools and businesses for ongoing mitigation.

That matches with what Santa Clara County’s Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody, said Tuesday ahead of Newsom’s announcement.

“This is a long, long event,” she said. “We are in a marathon, an ultra marathon, and we are probably at the beginning of this event.”

But when the state and county hits those milestones and lifts some restrictions, the way residents interact will still be changed, said Dr. Sonia Angell, California’s top health official.

“Restaurants will reopen, but perhaps they will have fewer tables, creating greater opportunity for physical distancing between one another when we’re eating out,” she said. “Face coverings are likely to become common in public.”

Businesses with offices or retail space will be required to reorganize to allow workers and customers to keep a distance between one another, Newsom said. Large events will likely remain prohibited through the summer and until more people are protected from the virus through a vaccine or some other kind of intervention.

“The prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and we get to a vaccine,” Newsom said. “Large scale events that bring in hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of strangers all together across every conceivable difference — health and otherwise — is not in the cards based upon our current guidelines and current expectations.”

The novel coronavirus can cause a severe respiratory illness known as COVID-19 and because it is a new virus strain without a vaccine, every person is susceptible to becoming infected. Though health experts say many people have mild or even non-existent symptoms when they get the virus, about 20 percent will need hospitalization. The virus can move through communities quickly because people who are infected can spread the illness for weeks before they feel sick.

Some of the key milestones state officials are aiming to hit before adjusting to lifting the current stay at home order include:

  • The ability to monitor the outbreak through testing and investigate new cases to isolate people who may have been infected
  • Prevent infection in people who are at a high risk of serious illness or death if they get the virus
  • Bulk up hospital supplies and staff to handle a potential surge of patients
  • Be able to develop “therapeutics,” like vaccines or other treatments for the virus
  • Work with businesses, schools and day cares to ensure physical distancing
  • Know when to re-institute certain measures, including the stay at home order, if necessary

Bending the curve

The announcement comes after state and local health officials say the stay-home orders succeeded in significantly slowing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

As of Monday, 23,338 people in the state had tested positive for the virus and 758 had died. Those numbers remain at the low end of the state’s projections, making state officials cautiously optimistic about loosening restrictions that were put in place last month to slow the spread.

In Santa Clara County 1,666 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 60 had died as of Tuesday. But the rate at which the number of infections is doubling has decreased from a matter of days to weeks, according to county data.

Even so, Cody stressed that the county still needs more protective supplies for frontline workers and that testing has lagged as the number of infections have increased too fast for the county to track and investigate each case — a critical step to slow the spread of the virus.

At the same time, state and county officials said Tuesday they know the statewide and regional shelter in place orders have had negative health and wellbeing impacts for people, including exacerbating mental health conditions, costing residents income, pulling children away from school and putting a downward pressure on the economy as a whole.

“Overall, what we are trying to do is balance a number of very, very difficult trade-offs such that the result is the most protective for health,” Cody said.

Newsom said this week the state would announce a new team that would begin to address some of the economic impacts.

Meanwhile, California has partnered with Oregon and Washington state officials to create a framework for loosening restrictions — an effort to combat a potential second wave of the virus along the West Coast once people begin to work and get outside more. Governors from all three states have agreed to make decisions based purely on science and health data, not due to “political pressure.”

“I don’t want to make a political decision that puts peoples’ lives at risk and puts the economy at even more risk by extending the amount of time that we can ultimately transition and get people moving again,” Newsom said. “That’s the sober reality, but it’s also a reality that provides a little bit of light and a little bit of optimism that this is not a permanant state and we are finally seeing some ray of sunshine on the horizon.”

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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