Home >News >world >How success against the Coronavirus turned to crisis in California
Gregory 'Joey' Johnson, whose burning of an American flag in Texas in 1984 led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the act as free speech, burns U.S. flags near Donald Trump's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame during an anti-Trump rally in in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 4, 2020. (REUTERS)
Gregory 'Joey' Johnson, whose burning of an American flag in Texas in 1984 led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the act as free speech, burns U.S. flags near Donald Trump's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame during an anti-Trump rally in in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 4, 2020. (REUTERS)
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How success against the Coronavirus turned to crisis in California

While the state controlled the shutdown, reopenings were left to counties, resulting in inconsistent policies; ‘The virus doesn’t stay within a boundary’

LOS ANGELES: For most of the spring, California was a coronavirus success story. Now, just weeks after it began to reopen, new cases of Covid-19 are exploding across America’s most populous state, and public officials are quickly retrenching.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a slew of new restrictions, including the mandatory closure of many bars and indoor restaurants, an effective admission that, after proceeding slower than other states in the early months of the outbreak, California reopened too quickly.

Nearly 6,000 people tested positive for the new coronavirus in California Tuesday, and more than 7,000 on Monday, the highest total during the pandemic and a 45% increase over the previous week. Hospitalizations are up more than 50% from two weeks ago. The percentage of tests coming back positive was 6% on Tuesday, up more than a full percentage point from two weeks earlier.

Los Angeles County, home to 10 million of the state’s 40 million people, recorded nearly 2,800 new infections Tuesday and a record 2,903 on Monday. Sacramento County was almost out of open ICU beds Wednesday. In Imperial County, in the southeast of the state, patients are being transferred elsewhere because the local health system is overloaded.

The closures announced Wednesday by Mr. Newsom, which also include movie theaters, zoos and museums, apply to 19 counties that together account for 70% of the state’s population, including Los Angeles. They follow the Democrat’s order earlier this week for bars in seven of those counties to close.

At a news conference, Mr. Newsom expressed confidence the state could get the virus under control again.

“We were able to bend the curve in the state of California,"he said. “We’re going to bend this curve again."

Public-health experts, however, said California may have already squandered the work it did to control the pandemic in March and April by devolving too much control over reopenings to counties.

“I have been baffled by California, as well as what’s happening locally in L.A.," said Ashish Jha, a professor of health policy at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He added there was “no medical rationale" for letting the state reopen so quickly. “I’m surprised. Gov. Newsom seemed like he understood the data and basic science."

In a sign of how their fortunes have reversed, New York, the state hit hardest by the virus in the spring, said Tuesday that travelers from California, along with other states where cases are growing such as Arizona and Texas, would have to quarantine for 14 days upon arriving.

Mr. Newsom didn’t respond to requests for comment. In recent news conferences, he has defended the state’s policies on reopening, noting the costs of a continuing shutdown in a state where unemployment hit 16.3% in May, the sixth highest in the nation. “You can’t be in a permanent state where people are locked away," he said on June 15.

“As we reopen our economy, as more people are mixing, we’re going to see an increase in spread," Mr. Newsom said Wednesday. He added that the earlier work to slow the virus had bought the state time to build capacity to deal with the surge it was now seeing.

Through the early months of the outbreak, California took a cautious approach. Mr. Newsom was the first governor to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order. In early May, as other states were reopening, he told Californians to wait.

With case counts stable, however, pressure soon began to mount on Mr. Newsom. Several counties began allowing businesses to reopen, in defiance of state rules. Sheriffs in Riverside and Orange counties said they wouldn’t enforce social-distancing regulations. Lawsuits challenged the state’s ban on churches gathering in person.

In some respects, public-health experts said, California’s early success controlling the virus worked against it. While those in the Northeast felt the brunt of Covid-19 deaths in the spring, on the West Coast the economic effects of the lockdown were more painful.

“People started to relax," said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. “They were saying, ‘We can’t take it anymore. We don’t know anybody with Covid. We’re going out.’"

On May 7, Mr. Newsom announced a system for counties to reopen one-by-one, in stages, if they hit certain metrics, including stable hospitalizations and limits on the number of new cases.

Within weeks, the majority of counties were reopening, at the same time that Black Lives Matter protests drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets. With counties making their own rules on reopening, what was permitted varied wildly from one part of the state to another. The variance had little relationship to infections, hospitalizations or death statistics.

San Francisco, where infection rates have stayed comparatively low, hasn’t reopened bars or gyms and recently put plans to reopen barber shops and nail salons on hold. Meanwhile, Los Angeles opened bars even as its case numbers were climbing. Some 500,000 people visited Los Angeles bars on June 20, one day after they reopened, according to county officials.

Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County public-health department, said that in retrospect, the county opened bars too early. But neighboring areas had done so, she said, and the state’s policy of allowing counties to manage their own reopening timelines put pressure on those that wanted to move slowly to keep up with those moving faster.

“Everyone around us was already open," Dr. Ferrer said. “It’s very confusing for people if you say an activity is safe in one county and not another."

Mr. Newsom, on Wednesday, defended the policy of allowing counties to reopen at different rates. The state government, he said, was imposing restrictions “on local parts of the state where we’re seeing an increase in community spread…not every part of the state is affected equally."

State enforcement hasn’t always lined up with where the virus was spreading fastest, however.

As of Tuesday, 8.2% of coronavirus tests in Los Angeles were coming back positive over the previous seven days, according to state data. Mr. Newsom ordered bars there to close on Sunday. But in neighboring Riverside County, state officials only recommended that bars close, even though the rate of positive tests there is 11.7%. Riverside officials ordered bars to close a day after Mr. Newsom’s recommendation.

State officials said that once a county began falling short of the required metrics, it was put on a watch list, and had 14 days to improve before the state would reimpose restrictions.

Early in the outbreak, Mr. Newsom and the Democratic governors of Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Nevada agreed to coordinate their responses to the coronavirus.

The governors’ chiefs of staff hold conference calls each Friday, in which they discuss their numbers and strategies. Four of the five states have adopted a similar county-by-county approach to reopening, and four now require masks statewide.

“It’s a shared approach, but individual paths moving forward," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said.

But as numbers have risen, some states in the pact responded faster than others. Oregon, where infection rates were lower than in California, paused its reopening on June 12, the same day California allowed counties to enter a new phase of reopening.

For local officials who have tried to proceed cautiously, the county-by-county approach has been frustrating. Sara Cody, the public-health officer in Santa Clara County, south of San Francisco, repeatedly warned state officials they were moving too fast. In the past three days, Santa Clara’s coronavirus hospitalizations grew 24%, according to state data updated Wednesday.

“The virus doesn’t stay within a boundary," said Jeff Smith, the Santa Clara County executive.

—Alejandro Lazo and Lukas Alpert contributed to this article.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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