By MADISON HIRNEISEN
THE CENTER SQUARE STAFF REPORTER
(The Center Square) — California officials unveiled a new plan Thursday to move the state into the “next phase” of the pandemic, introducing a new strategy that approaches COVID-19 with the recognition that it will likely be a “long-term nemesis.”
State officials announced the “California SMARTER Plan” on Thursday, which includes seven areas of focus: shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and Rx, meaning medicines and treatments. Within these areas, the state will continue to promote vaccines as a “powerful weapon” against hospitalization and illness, stockpile masks for future emergencies and focus on increasing testing capacity.
Speaking from a warehouse in San Bernardino County on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the plan represents the state moving away from a “crisis mindset” to a strategy of “living with the virus.” He said that the plan acknowledges that there is “no end date” and “no moment where we declare victory.”
“We are taking a more sensible — and I would argue — sustainable health care approach based on the lessons learned to prepare for the unknown and to invest in a future where we can all do better there,” Gov. Newsom said Thursday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly emphasized Thursday that the plan is about “balance” and takes into account the things the state has learned over the last two years of responding to the pandemic. He noted that each of the seven domains is anchored around taking a “smarter” approach to addressing COVID-19 and letting go of the more rigid frameworks the state originally deployed.
“We learned and continue to learn that applying a standardized framework and approach from one variant to another might be ineffective,” Dr. Ghaly said Thursday. “Applying a ‘delta framework’ to omicron or an ‘omicron framework’ to delta, proves to be inadequate and imprecise.”
Dr. Ghaly said Thursday that the plan includes several “on and off ramps” when it comes to certain mitigation measures, including masking. He explained that early signs of increasing transmission will trigger how mitigations are applied, noting that when there is a more deadly variant, the state will focus on preventing cases, while a less virulent variant would lead them to focus more on hospitalizations.
Dr. Ghaly noted that there may be times in the future when everyone will be required to wear masks “to get through certain situations so we don’t overwhelm our healthcare delivery system or cripple our businesses.”
Within the plan, the state would increase readiness by upping its testing supply and committing to procuring 30 million at-home COVID-19 tests. The plan also sets a goal of stockpiling 75 million high quality masks and seeks to ensure that the state has a ready supply of ventilators ahead of future surges.
Additionally, the plan states that California officials would be prepared to add 3,000 clinical staffers within two to three weeks of need.
The plan also aims to advance the state’s surveillance approach. Dr. Ghaly said Thursday that surveillance is “key” to seeing where transmission is occurring and how fast. The plan outlines maintained surveillance by ongoing sequencing of at least 10% of positive test specimens and building upon an existing “wastewater surveillance system” that picks up signals indicating when levels of COVID-19 transmission are higher than normal.
Dr. Ghaly noted that the state is recognizing the “seasonality of COVID-19” and said it is likely the state will see upticks in cases during back to school season and in the winter months — just like its seen over the past two years.
Several health officials praised the new plan on Thursday, saying that the plan will help to ensure the state is prepared for upcoming virus-related challenges.
“California’s thoughtful approach to the pandemic has led to the lowest per-capita death rate of any large American state,” Dr. Robert Wachter, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said in a statement. “Coming out of the omicron surge, we have to apply all the lessons we’ve learned in the past two years, to be sure that we’re taking the smartest possible approach to this rapidly evolving threat. I was impressed by the SMARTER Plan, which does just that.”
Dr. Ghaly acknowledged Thursday that there are still future aspects of the virus that remain unknown, telling reporters that the state is “gliding into normal.” He said officials “aren’t predicting anything,” but will use the lessons learned over the past two years to pave the way forward.
“We aren’t out of the woods. We’re just more familiar with the woods and don’t need to live fully afraid of what’s behind the next tree,” Dr. Ghaly said.
Madison Hirneisen covers California for The Center Square.