Arguing that the state took steps to reopen the economy too soon, California State Senator Steve Glazer (D - Contra Costa) has called on Gov. Gavin Newson to reinstate a shelter-in-place order similar to the one that went into effect at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.
“With this crisis on the verge of spiraling out of control, the only question we should be asking is, what will it take to lower infection rates?” Glazer said. “At this point, we have no choice but to take tough measures, while we simultaneously act to help those in need. Our lives and our livelihood depend on us to move forward as Californians unified against this deadly virus.”
Glazer recommends a renewed shelter-in-place order for counties with positive test rates of greater than 2% over 14 days. The order would require all people to remain home except for essential work and trips for food or health. It would also require a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering California from a state or country with a positive test rate of greater than 2%, including California residents who leave the state and then return.
While Glazer praised Newsom’s early handling of the pandemic, he believes the governor made a critical mistake with regard to the reopening of the state.
“You’ll find a lot of the programs that (Newsom) implemented during the first six or seven weeks of shelter-in-place were well-targeted, important and praise-worthy. It is only on May 8 when he put out guidance for reopening and allowed counties to get variances from state rules under self-attestation requirement that I began to criticize the reopening as happening too soon – where we hadn’t really contained the virus.”
In Contra Costa County, where the number of patients hospitalized due to a COVID-19 infection has increased nearly 1,000% from June 1 to Aug. 1, political leaders have not expressed strong support for Glazer’s position. A spokesperson for Contra Costa Health Services only said the agency does “not have a position on the topic.”
Diane Burgis, District 3 supervisor, said the county’s strategy to slow the spread of the virus is built on four pillars: maintaining an appropriate social distance, wearing face coverings, frequent hand washing and staying home when sick.
“I understand these times are extremely challenging for everyone,” Burgis said. “Our goal is harm reduction and preventing death. The shelter-in-place is a blunt instrument, and research is showing that community spread continued to occur, in part, because people have continued to gather with individuals from outside of their home without following those four pillars. My hope is that by recommitting to the four pillars I outlined and pausing the reopening, we’ll see the numbers start to come down again. It is possible if numbers continue to go up, the state or the county may need to add in more restrictions. It’s really up to us.”
The spread of the virus appeared to have slowed toward the end of May. There were no deaths reported during the week ending May 30, and only 126 new infections were added to the county’s total. The seven-day positivity rate for testing was 2.4% on May 30, and the seven-day average number of hospitalized patients hit a low point of 12.1 during that week.
Conditions soon took a turn for the worse. Indicators used to track the spread of the virus were deteriorating by mid-June, and that trend has continued unabated into August.
“It’s clear to me that we’re losing the fight against the coronavirus, and the results are in the numbers,” Glazer said. “Infections are rising at a rapid rate. The state has acknowledged that we don’t have sufficient testing, as well as disclosing that our trace and tracking are insufficient. Those three elements give a clear indication to me that without a more serious restriction on person-to-person interactions, our likelihood of containing the spread is low.”
The state and the county responded to the pandemic’s expansion with a series of actions intended to slow the infection rate. County officials put the brakes on a planned July 1 reopening of indoor dining, bars, gyms and indoor museums. Two weeks later hair salons, barber shops and indoor religious services, which had been allowed to resume in Contra Costa County on June 17, were once again shuttered. In the county’s most recent action, the board of supervisors approved fines for health order violations ranging from $100 to $500 for residents and from $250 to $1,000 for businesses.
“There is the need to increase vigilance to slow the spread, and that’s why we passed the fine ordinance today,” said Candace Andersen, chair of the county’s board of supervisors, when the board passed the ordinance July 28.
Despite the actions taken earlier this summer, the week ending Aug. 1 was arguably the worst the county has experienced since the start of the pandemic. It was the deadliest week of the pandemic with 21 reported fatalities. Hospitalizations hit a high of 110 and testing volumes plummeted with approximately 10,000 fewer tests performed than the week prior. The seven-day positive testing rate was 10%.
Glazer believes that a shutdown of three to six weeks will be required to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the region, and is quick to acknowledge the hardship that it would entail.
“It is a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “It will be very hurtful. But having the virus continue to grow and expand has an even greater impact on people, on our economy and on our schools. It’s taking your medicine ... My view is that we’re not trying to live with this virus. We’re trying to kill this virus and get our lives back to some sense of normalcy — to get people back to work, to get our kids back in the classroom. Those are the goals that we have. You can’t do any of those things unless you control the spread of this virus. Our public health and our economy are handcuffed together. If we want to try to recover sooner, then we have to take our tough medicine sooner.”
So far, Newsom has not given any indication that a renewed shelter-in-place order is likely, though others are also advocating for similar actions on the state and federal levels. A letter published by the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and signed by more than 150 health professionals states that 99% of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 could have been prevented. The group calls for the closure of nonessential businesses and other actions they believe will stop the expansion of the pandemic.
“The best thing for the nation is not to reopen as quickly as possible, it’s to save as many lives as possible,” wrote Matthew Wellington, public health campaigns director at U.S. PIRG. “And reopening before suppressing the virus isn’t going to help the economy.”
If action is not taken to implement a new shelter-in-place order, Glazer predicts three possible outcomes. The first is that the pandemic will worsen to the point that hospitals in some areas will be overrun and an emergency order will have to be put in place. The second is that the economy will continue to limp along into the foreseeable future with some sectors open and some closed, and no real improvement made. The final scenario is that the spread of the virus will be slowed because residents will change their behavior on their own accord.
“We can’t wait another four to six weeks to see if the measures now in place will do the job,” Glazer said. “If they don’t, the virus will be completely out of control. We need to act now to ensure that doesn’t happen.”