California’s Next COVID Wave

JUST ENDEMIC THINGS: California has gone through more lulls and surges than we can count at this point, but it looks like we’re heading for another uptick. The Omicron variant has evolved into more subvariants, doctors are masking up again and California has seen a 50 percent increase in cases over the past two weeks.

Things are not as bad as they were in January. At that time, the seven day positivity rate jumped to 22 percent. Today, it’s around 3.4 percent. In January, hospitalizations peaked at nearly 15,000 Covid patients. On Friday, the state reported 1,112 hospitalized Covid patients. You’d be forgiven for wanting to take a hiatus from worrying about the pandemic, but with this next increase — surge, bump, ripple or whatever you want to call it — we’ll get to see how the state’s SMARTER plan works in action and how Californians react in year three of living with the coronavirus.

As a quick refresher: Gov. Gavin Newsom debuted the plan in mid-February, at a time when the state was just coming down from the Omicron surge. It was a much more somber rollout than the celebratory reopening ceremony Newsom threw in June, which featured Minions and a Troll. In February, the governor opted for a tone of moderation and caution, warning Californians that there “is no end date” to the pandemic, and that “there is not a moment where we declare victory.”

A NEW SET OF PRIORITIES: The state’s priorities at this point include minimizing the strain on the health care system and keeping schools open and in-person. Unlike previous strategies, the SMARTER plan doesn’t have specific metrics that trigger certain restrictions. Instead, the state monitors transmission and deploys resources, like masks, testing supplies and medical staff, to specific areas as needed.

A big difference between the old plan and the new approach is that the state doesn’t require masking in public places any more, including on transit and in schools, but does strongly recommend masks for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status. Could that change if cases continue to climb? It happened last year when Omicron entered the scene, but as we mentioned before, that surge was much more severe than the one we’re seeing now.

The trends in California track with what’s happening around the nation. The U.S. has seen a similar increase since late April, with cases up about 50 percent, and a majority of states have seen cases rise by more than that in the last two weeks. But even if this particular uptick is mild, there’s no promise of smooth sailing in the months to follow. The Biden administration is asking Congress for more emergency aid and bracing for the possibility that 100 million Americans — about 30 percent of the population — will get infected this fall and winter, per reporting from the New York Times.

VACCINE SLOWDOWN: You can expect that vaccines will continue to be a central part of California’s pandemic strategy, but efforts to drive up inoculation rates have run into some hurdles. In total, 75 percent of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated, but that number drops to less than 67 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds and even lower, to less than 35 percent, for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Newsom last year made national headlines by adding the vaccine to the list of inoculations required for kids to attend public school, and a bill introduced this year by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) would have codified the same requirement and gone one step further by refusing to allow personal belief exemptions. Officials had expected the requirement to go into effect this summer, and there was hope it would improve the lagging rates of vaccination among kids. But just last month, Pan pulled his bill and the California Department of Public Health said it wouldn’t add Covid-19 to the list of required childhood vaccines because it hadn’t received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Now, it’s looking like California won’t require the coronavirus vaccine for public school students until July 2023 at the earliest.


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