Borenstein: Gov. Newsom’s coronavirus strategy accepts 60-plus daily deaths

Borenstein: Gov. Newsom’s coronavirus strategy accepts
60-plus daily deaths 1

Gov. Gavin Newsom has adopted a coronavirus strategy that signals he’s OK with more than 60 people dying every day in California from COVID-19.

The state has fared much better than some others, most notably New York, that were hard-hit by the virus. That’s largely due to the early action of Bay Area counties, followed by Newsom’s state order, to impose sheltering and social distancing requirements.

But we have now shifted to a reopening strategy in hopes of jump-starting the severely damaged economy so people can go back to work and pay their bills. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear how unprepared we are for this moment.

State and Bay Area officials, especially in Alameda County, continue to stumble on basic steps to help stem the spread of the virus – like testing residents and workers at elder-care facilities, where half the state’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred; identifying workplaces where returning employees are creating new hotspots; and rapidly responding to outbreaks.

At the most basic level for prevention, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties still are not conducting enough tests each day, based on the state’s guidelines. It’s appalling that officials there are reopening without it. Testing is key to quickly spotting outbreaks and addressing them before they spread.

State health officials note that the stated purpose of the March sheltering orders was to ensure that hospitals were not overwhelmed by an expected rapid rise in cases. In an interview Tuesday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, Newsom’s secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, touted that the strategy succeeded, that the state has flattened the curve on hospitalizations.

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But we’ve only flattened them; we haven’t stopped the carnage. Hospitalizations have never come down substantially. Rather than a bell-shaped curve, we’re witnessing a plateau, with a likely rise in the fall when cold weather brings more of us indoors, if not sooner because of the economic reopening.

Statewide hospital coronavirus patient counts remain at about 4,500 a day and daily deaths hover between 60 and 70. Since the start, more than 5,200 people have died in California from COVID-19.

Unfortunately, death during a pandemic is inevitable, especially when only a small fraction of the population might have immunity from contracting the virus. But state and county officials can and should do more to slow the devastation.

It’s inexcusable that the state only now is requiring nursing homes to conduct baseline coronavirus testing of patients and workers. That testing is not expected to be completed until the end of the month.

Residents, their families and facility workers should have already known how widely the virus is spreading in the homes. Moreover, slowing the spread requires knowing who is infected.

Similarly, counties should be rapidly responding to outbreaks in the community and proactively trying to identify other hot spots.

Alameda County officials have refused to discuss the number of coronavirus cases at Tesla’s auto manufacturing plant in Fremont. And the county’s bungled response to at least a dozen cases at Cardenas Markets grocery store in Oakland – in the county’s worst zip code for coronavirus – has been pathetic.

The county waited weeks to require testing of the workers at the grocery store. At first, a county health department spokeswoman said her agency could not require testing, then weeks later admitted that it had directed the company test its employees. Yet, neither the county nor the store has responded to inquiries about the findings, leaving shoppers unable to know the risk of patronizing the store.

In contrast, Santa Clara County moved quickly to test all workers at Lusamerica Foods, a wholesale fish distributor in Morgan Hill, and promptly reported the number of cases to the public. Similarly, the county was proactive in monitoring the effect of reopening construction sites, reporting last week that workers at 13 projects had tested positive.

The finding was a smart use of demographic data that must be reported with each test result. It’s the same sort of data that a group of medical experts, led by Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, an affiliated assistant professor at Stanford, this week asked the state to provide. No one needs to know the names of the patients – but analysis of the numbers would help health officials, policymakers and the public make better decisions.

Neither the governor nor county officials should accept the current death rate. But curbing it requires a more aggressive and transparent response.

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