Perhaps you heard the announcement this week that President Joe Biden plans to end the nation’s COVID public health emergency in May, signaling that the pandemic has moved into a less dire phase.
California’s version is set to end even sooner.
The state’s coronavirus emergency declaration will expire Feb. 28, almost three years after it began. It gave Gov. Gavin Newsom broad power to issue mandates intended to slow the spread of the virus, as well as to bypass certain state laws. He announced in October that he would end the emergency in February, and a spokesperson from his office confirmed Wednesday that that’s still his plan.
The sunsetting of the emergency declaration, which has been the basis for more than 500 legal and policy measures in California, reflects a shift in how state officials are approaching the pandemic, experts say. Newsom released a statewide plan last year that calls for treating the virus as a manageable risk, as opposed to a crisis.
The coronavirus is still killing about 40 people a day in California and is infecting people at the level of a “very bad flu season,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiologist at UCLA.
But the state seems to have avoided a catastrophic winter surge, and reports of new cases have been falling in recent weeks. Three-fourths of all Californians have received at least an initial vaccination against the virus.
So more than ever in California, the virus has become something we live with, as scientists in the early days of the pandemic predicted that it eventually would. Health experts still strongly advise staying up-to-date on vaccines and boosters, and wearing a mask in high-risk environments, but they aren’t as quick to recommend many other behavioral changes that were once considered necessary.
Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles County public health director, recently said that she had started eating indoors at restaurants — for the first time since the pandemic began. Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of UCSF’s department of medicine, has said that the recent case rates are low enough in the Bay Area that indoor dining feels tolerable, although he’s still wearing a KN-95 mask when grocery shopping.
“I want to live as fully as I can, but am comfortable taking reasonable steps to avoid infection,” Wachter said on Twitter.
The coronavirus is unlikely to burn out altogether, and it is possible that the emergence of new variants could lead to another big surge, Brewer said. But for now, he said, the virus seems likely to follow a pattern similar to influenza — circulating year-round and peaking in the colder months.
“I think the way you think about COVID going forward is, you don’t let COVID determine your life — life goes on, even though COVID is out there,” Brewer said. He thinks it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be totally done with COVID. Still, he said, “there does seem to be this need to bring about closure, even though the virus isn’t going anywhere.”
As for the statewide emergency declaration, Newsom’s administration said it would seek legislative approval to make two of the emergency provisions permanent: allowing nurses to continue to dispense COVID medications like Paxlovid, and allowing lab workers to process COVID-19 tests on their own.
“With the public health infrastructure and operational preparedness built up throughout the pandemic, the state has the tools needed to continue protecting Californians when the state of emergency terminates,” Danella Debel, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email.
Carmela Coyle, head of the California Hospital Association, said she hoped the governor would further delay the expiration of the state of emergency, at least until May, when the federal emergency is set to end. She said that many hospitals in the state were full or beyond capacity — in part because of pent-up demand for surgery and other treatments that were delayed over the past few years — and that they were struggling with staffing shortages.
The emergency rules have allowed hospitals to create temporary treatment spaces to cope with the large number of patients, and to hire workers from out of state to help treat those patients.
“February is a terrible time to end the public health emergency,” Coyle said. “The discontinuation of those declarations of emergency has to be thoughtfully planned and transitioned. Otherwise, it leaves hospitals caught in the middle in this debate of whether the pandemic is over or not.”