Gov. unveils plan to move from pandemic to endemic phase of COVID-19

SMARTER Plan balances the state’s management of the virus with advancement of the recovery while preparing for future outbreaks

FONTANA – Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the state’s plan to move from the pandemic to the endemic phase of California’s response to COVID-19. 

Speaking from a state-operated warehouse in Fontana with rows of stacked boxes of the personal protective equipment as his backdrop, Newsom outlined his SMARTER Plan balancing a strategic approach to managing the virus while moving the state forward in its recovery at a Feb. 17 press conference. He also made it clear Californians should not expect an end to COVID-19 even as the state emerges from the Omicron surge and begins easing restrictions.

“There is no end date, there is not a moment where we declare victory,” Newsom said. “We now know, it’s more of a direction.”

The SMARTER Plan’s core pillars and preparedness metrics focus on lifesaving public health measures and strategies the state has successfully used to slow the spread and protect Californians. Recognizing that each variant brings with it unique characteristics and challenges which affect communities and populations differently, the plan preserves needed flexibility and ensures the state has the resources and capabilities in place to tackle the COVID-19 challenges that lie ahead:

  • Shots- Vaccines are the most powerful weapon against hospitalization and serious illness. Under the plan, California will maintain capacity to administer at least 200,000 vaccines per day on top of existing pharmacy and provider infrastructure.
  • Masks- Properly worn masks with good filtration help slow the spread of COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses. The state will maintain a stockpile of 75 million high quality masks and the capability to distribute them as needed.
  • Awareness- We will continue to stay aware of how COVID-19 is spreading and evolving variants, communicate clearly how people should protect themselves, and coordinate our state and local government response. California will maintain capability to promote vaccination, masking and other mitigation measures in all 58 counties and support engagement with at least 150 community-based organizations.
  • Readiness- COVID-19 isn’t going away and we need to be ready with the tools, resources and supplies that will allow us to quickly respond to protect public health and to keep the health care system well prepared. The state will maintain wastewater surveillance in all regions and enhance respiratory surveillance in the health care system while continuing to sequence at least 10 percent of positive COVID-19 test specimens. The state will also maintain the ability to add 3,000 clinical staff within 2-3 weeks of need and across various health care facility types.
  • Testing- Getting the right type of tests – PCR or antigen – to where they are needed most. Testing will help California minimize the spread of COVID-19. California will maintain commercial and local public health capacity statewide to perform at least 500,000 tests per day – a combination of PCR and antigen.
  • Education- California will continue to work to keep schools open and children safely in classrooms for in-person instruction. The state will expand by 25% school-based vaccination sites supported by the state to increase vaccination rates as eligibility expands.
  • Rx- Evolving and improving treatments will become increasingly available and critical as a tool to save lives. The state will maximize orders for the most clinically effective therapies available through federal partnerships, ensuring allocations of effective therapeutics are ordered within 48-hours.

“People are looking forward to turning the page. People are desperate to move past this crisis. People are desperate to get back to whatever semblance of normalcy they vaguely may remember from a few years prior,” Newsom said. “They also need to know we have their back, that we’re going to keep them safe and that we are going to stay on top of this.”

To illustrate how the plan will work it uses the example of a wastewater surveillance system picking up a signal indicating a higher level of transmission of COVID-19. California is still in the development phase of creating a network of regionally based wastewater surveillance systems to have early and rapid insights into the changing nature of the virus and variants. Once online, the network can be scaled up to support identification of future infectious diseases. 

This will trigger efforts to sequence the strain to decide if this is a known or new variant. If it’s new, the state will coordinate with the federal government to find out if the strain is resistant to therapeutics, if it can be detected by current testing methods and if previous variants or vaccines provide any level of immunity.

The state will then deploy staff and testing supplies to the area seeing high transmission levels and work with local partners to provide testing, aid with hospital surges and develop information catered to population groups. 

The state’s plan says it will lean on science, such as looking at hospitalizations for highly infectious variants or the case rate for highly virulent strains, to determine its response. Those who test positive, were exposed to someone with the virus or feel sick should quarantine based on CDC and CDPH recommendations. Future masking requirements will be temporary, targeted and tailored to conditions of the area. 

“We know Omicron is not the last variant of this disease,” Newsom said.

The state will maintain its focus on populations which are more vulnerable to the virus. According to the plan, the death rate for Latinos and Blacks are 17% and 16% higher than the state average, Pacific Islanders have a case rate 75% higher than the state and low-income communities 24% higher, and those 50 and older represented 90% of all deaths in California. 

A key in keeping these populations safe will be keeping them informed with accurate information. Newsom said the state already has a team of HHS employees who attempt to counter misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms. Part of the plan is to create a new Organized Strategic Communication and Community Partnership unit dedicated to debunking myths about the pandemic being spread online and on cable news networks. 

“We want to go after the mis- and disinformation that is still a huge problem in America today,” Newsom said. 

California will also focus on preparing for future outbreaks by closing equity gaps in the vaccination rate and in the healthcare workforce, permanently integrating testing sites into the health care system, launching the first-in-the-nation study on the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and communities over time, dedicate $300 million annually and $1.7 billion over the next three years to increase capacity at hospitals, maintain a network of 3,000 health care workers for deployment, create public-private partnerships to drop the cost of testing, and incentivize innovations in air filtration systems.

“California is prepared to lean in on the principles that have made us successful in our COVID-19 response. Under the SMARTER Plan, we will use the significant knowledge we have gained and the tools and resources we have developed over the last two years to adapt and respond to whatever is next,” California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said. “Californians should rest assured we are ready and prepared to meet any public health challenges that may lie ahead.”

The state contends its efforts requiring indoor masking, social distancing and encouragement of vaccinations, and making masks, tests and vaccinations available, has saved tens of thousands of lives as California has one of the lowest cumulative death rates (just over 200 per 100,000 people) among large states including Florida, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. California has partnered with 700 community-based organizations, established 7,500 testing sites, deployed 28,000 staff to support health care facilities, distributed 33 million at-home tests, administered 140 million COVID-19 tests, provided 870 million N-95 masks and administered 70 million vaccines. 

“California’s SMARTER plan should represent a turning point in managing the pandemic from taking whatever the virus brings us to being prepared to manage whatever challenges come next,” Newsom said. “This plan will act as a model for states around the country.”

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