Will Gov. Newsom's plan to reopen California create larger, deadlier COVID-19 problems?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

By Senator Steven Glazer and Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager special to the Sacramento Bee

Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing mounting pressure to loosen the state’s shelter-in-place order.

Yet the danger to public health is as bad today as it was on March 19 when Newsom issued the order. The virus has not disappeared. The infection rate and hospitalizations have slowed only because the public agreed to avoid social contact.

A rebound of the virus would erode the public trust and confidence in the governor’s leadership and undermine his ability to reimpose restrictions if necessary. Newsom and other politicians are struggling to balance their commitment to protect public health with the frustration of residents who want to resume their economic lives. But there are risks galore.

We have too little information to guide us. We know very little about how or where people are becoming infected. Without that data, we won’t know what to reopen and what to keep closed.

A New York study revealed that the majority of people being admitted to hospitals with the virus were not essential workers. More than 80 percent were not even working outside the home, which means that most of them probably got the disease from someone in the household.

Newsom should order a similar California study. Also, a random weekly study of the overall population should be completed to establish a baseline of the infection rate, rate of spread and the habits of people getting sick and give us a way to track those numbers as more social contact occurs.

Newsom should maintain his order that the elderly and people with vulnerable conditions shelter in place, even as he eases stay at home requirements on others. The governor must also address problems associated with this vulnerable population, specifically the need to get them food and medicine.

Finally, he should state clearly what metrics he will be using to determine if the state, or any part of it, needs to lock down again. If the number of hospitalizations is key, Newsom should say how many are acceptable statewide and by region.

For the past month, the number of Californians hospitalized with COVID-19 has remained between 4,300 and 4,700, even as we sheltered in place. In Los Angeles, a similar consistency reigns. In the first week of May, 296 people lost their lives to COVID-19. Last week, 294 people died from the virus. In total, LA County has lost more than 1,000 lives to the illness just in the month of May.

If these consistent numbers rise as we reopen, what should we do?

Without a numerical target or threshold to guide the public, we won’t know our condition or whether we are doing enough to halt the spread. Having that information would make people more likely to use caution when they move about and give everyone a better understanding of the consequences of their activities.

The steps above – better data, more support for the vulnerable and more transparency about decision-making – are necessary because we are reopening without reducing the number of cases to zero. Like other governors, Newsom is choosing to restart the economy while the virus is active and hoping that the state can keep the number of infections and deaths under control.

The economy will never fully recover until people believe they can resume normal activity without getting sick. They won’t believe that they are safe unless they trust what Newsom says and are able to see the data that supports his conclusion.

Protests that demand the lifting of restrictions have gotten a lot of media attention. But polls show that a large majority of Americans support the policies that brought the virus under control. We must keep our eyes on the facts and not let the loud voices of a few drive our decisions.

We need to reopen the economy, but we also need to exercise intelligence and safeguard public health as we navigate through this pandemic. Let us not create larger, more deadly problems for ourselves.