Despite the fact that most Californians are aware of the ongoing pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom unexpectedly announced last week that the crisis phase of Covid-19 was over, and we in the bright-blue state of California were going to pioneer a new approach to the disease: treating it as “endemic.”
(And yes, the source of this information was the same person who was found to be in breach of the pandemic policies he mandated.)
As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the endemic disease is one that is “constantly present and/or usually prevalent in the population of a geographic area.”
Newsom’s declaration that Covid is endemic doesn’t mean that it’s finished. “It’s here to stay,” he tells us. “It’s here to stay, and we need to accept that we’ll always have some level of mortality from it.” This level of death is still in its highest position since early 2021, well before a vaccine was widely accessible.
Many Californians and those outside the state are already taking a deep breath of maskless air and going back to business as normal since the crisis has passed, as Newsom stated, despite the fact that the wave is receding.
As a result, Newsom’s apparent political motivation to use California as an example of how the “pandemic is over if you want it” can be disastrous. Although it could be mistaken for a declaration of victory, this flag of surrender is a symbol of defeat.
We know from American history that politicians who make grandiose statements in front of a flag reading “Mission Accomplished!” (hello, George W. Bush) are setting themselves up for a disastrous legacy for themselves and for the country as a whole.
SMARTER (Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education, and Rx) is hardly a proclamation of victory over Covid, as Newsom has made plain in his remarks about his “endemic response plan.”
We are “turning the page, going from this crisis mentality, moving from a reactive framework to… living with this virus” because of a new perspective, he said. To study and improve our defenses against this virus as it evolves, we’ve put in the work over the previous two years to build the tools that will allow us to know what works.
Newsom’s assertion has three major flaws. To begin with, we have no idea “what works” as its whole.
Covid-19’s transmission and prevention are still being extensively explored, and there are many critical unanswered concerns. Questions such as how long past infection or vaccination immunity is expected to remain and how and where Covid affects the body are of interest.
In other circumstances, primary harm is not caused by the virus itself, but rather by the body’s “cytokine storm” reaction to infection, which is characterized by a rapid release of cytokines.
Our current treatment, response, and long-term therapy techniques may not be correct, or they may not be correct as the disease continues to mutate and produce new forms.
This brings us to our second issue. As a state and a nation, we’ve decided to give up on trying to contain the virus, which means it will continue to evolve. As Covid spreads from person to person, new varieties are created.
Our best hope of limiting the spread of novel variations lies in preventing transmission or, at the very least, slowing it down. New Covid spin-offs from Pi through Omega and beyond will be generated in short order by abandoning even the tiniest limitations we currently have in favor of a “damn the torpedoes” mentality.
The notion that we are ready to begin “living with the virus” is the third flaw in Newsom’s new approach to Covid. When there are still so many people dying from the virus, talking about surviving it is a big deal.
Although the seven-day rolling death averages in California have begun to decline in recent weeks, they remain above average since last summer’s Delta Wave.
As it stands, vaccines are successful in preventing hospitalization and mortality, and widespread immunization would allow us to better cope with the virus. The capacity of omicron to partially avoid vaccination, on the other hand, has been a major changer.
Only 31% of California’s 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, despite the fact that the state’s 18- to 64-year-olds and 71% of its 12- to 17-year-olds are fully protected.
In addition, only 63% of adults aged 18 to 64 and 6% of 12- to 17-year-olds had omicron boosters, which are required to provide complete protection from severe illness because of omicron’s higher contagiousness. There are no boosters for children under the age of 11.
In other words, omicron’s magic-bullet dodging technique has set us back — far enough back that public health experts now fear that obtaining herd immunity is practically unachievable. Newsom’s decision to stop the disease’s “crisis attitude” may be based on these considerations.
To say the crisis has passed is an understatement; we’ve just shifted our perspective on it, like turning a switch. “This is not a case where you have a flip of the switch, like, we’re pandemic one day, and then we switch to endemic,” Yale School of Public Health epidemiology and microbial diseases chair Albert Ko told the Washington Post in January.
Unless, of course, you’re Gavin Newsom. Of course, the SMARTER plan has some positive aspects, such as expanded wastewater monitoring to detect potential viral surges and the formal addition of Covid to the list of obligatory immunizations schoolchildren require for in-person attendance.
However, the worst impact of this arbitrary overnight policy switch, with no evident cause other than Newsom’s political wish to get ahead of pandemic weariness, is that trust in government crisis communications will be weakened.
Newsom’s decision might further reduce public health compliance in the event of future epidemics that necessitate reactivation of severe social distance and masking procedures.
It would have been better if explicit milestones for vaccination levels or case and fatality rates had been specified as triggers for a shift in policy, or if the CDC had issued formal recommendations on the matter. I suppose California would not have been the first, then again