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California lays out plan to live with Covid for the long-term, fight future surges and new variants

A COVID-19 testing location is shown set up on the sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles, California, November, 16, 2021.
Mike Blake | Reuters

California on Thursday laid out a plan that manage Covid as a permanent aspect of life, anticipating future surges and new variants that may require public health measures such as facemasks depending on how much the virus is disrupting economic and social activity.

California Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the state’s response will depend on the dominant Covid variant circulating at any given time, how much disease the variant is causing, and how many people are hospitalized by the strain.

Ghaly did not provide specific triggers that would result in the imposition of public health measures. He said a more deadly variant might require California to focus on infection numbers, while a less virulent strain may demand a focus on hospitalization numbers.

Ghaly said California will probably experience seasonal Covid surges in the fall and winter, and the state will closely monitor whether those surges are caused by new variants of concern or familiar ones. The health secretary said the state would impose measures such as masks if the particular Covid strain is causing serious disruptions to hospitals and businesses.

“There may need to be a time when we all wear masks to get through certain situations, so we don’t overwhelm our healthcare delivery system or cripple our businesses,” Ghaly said.

The response plan aims to use wastewater surveillance to detect rising viral transmission early, so the state can rapidly sequence new variants as they emerge and determine within 45 days if vaccines, tests and therapeutics are effective against the strain. The state would quickly deploy additional testing and surge health-care staff to regions impacted by rising transmission, according to the plan.

California plans to have capacity to administer at least 500,000 Covid tests and 200,000 vaccines daily, as well as surge health-care staff by 3,000 within two to three weeks. The state will stockpile 75 million high-quality masks, thousands of ventilators, and procure another 30 million over-the-counter Covid tests, according to Ghaly.

California will also focus on keeping people updated on their vaccines, particularly children who only recently became eligible as well as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, Ghaly said.

California let its universal indoor mask mandate expire on Tuesday as the omicron wave subsides in the state. The vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks indoors, though state health officials strongly encourage them to do so. People who are unvaccinated, on the other hand, are still required to wear masks when they enter indoor public places such as shops, restaurants and theaters.

California’s mask mandate for schools remains in effect. State health officials will evaluate what the pandemic looks like in California at the end of the month and provide a timeframe for when the school mask mandate will shift to a recommendation, Ghaly said earlier this week.

California is reporting a seven-day average of about 13,800 new Covid cases per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, down 61% over the past week. Average cases in the state hit a pandemic peak of more than 123,000 per day on Jan. 16.

Nearly 8,500 patients are currently in California hospitals with Covid, according to a seven-day average of data from the Department of Health and Human Services as of Thursday. That’s down 22% over the past week and about half of peak omicron levels seen in late January. The state’s pandemic high of more than 23,600 hospitalized Covid patients was set on Jan. 14 of 2021.

— CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.

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