The darkest days of California’s winter coronavirus surge are shrinking in the rearview mirror, prompting new optimism — as well as continued pleas for vigilance — as the state moves forward with a wider reopening of businesses, as well as schools for in-person learning.
Although the state’s coronavirus numbers have plummeted to levels not see in months, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday acknowledged that “we are seeing a little bit of a plateau, and one needs to be mindful of that.”
His remarks echo sentiments recently shared by federal health officials, who warn that, despite the recent progress, it would be premature to declare victory over the pandemic.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that she remained “deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic” as the latest data suggested that newly reported cases were stalling nationwide.
“I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” she said during a briefing.
The rate of decline may have slowed, but recent weeks have put California — and the nation as a whole — on a more positive trajectory.
Over the last week, California has reported an average of 5,300 new coronavirus cases per day, down almost 46% from two weeks ago.
As of Sunday, 4,912 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized statewide, the lowest figure since Nov. 19. The number of Californians battling COVID-19 in intensive care units — 1,439 — has also fallen to pre-Thanksgiving levels.
Given the current metrics, Newsom said the state was positioned to move forward and that he was “very encouraged by the stabilization.”
The governor said state officials would likely announce Tuesday that seven counties would move from the purple tier — the strictest of the state’s four-category reopening roadmap — into the more permissive red tier. The counties slated to advance are Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, El Dorado, Napa, Lassen and Modoc.
If those seven join the red tier later this week, that would raise the number of Californians who live in counties that are outside the most restrictive tier from about 1.6 million to 5 million, representing about 13% of the state’s population.
Newsom said more counties were expected to enter the red tier next week.
“I’m very encouraged by the stabilization — the case rates, the positivity rate,” he said. “We do anticipate a majority of Californians in the next few weeks to be residing in counties that have moved out of the most restrictive purple tier.”
That optimism is also reflected in an agreement Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders announced Monday to give school districts $2 billion to open, by April 1, campuses serving students in transitional kindergarten through second grade.
“We’re not waiting to get out of this purple tier in order to get our kids safely back into in-person instruction,” Newsom said during a news conference. “And that’s what’s so meaningful to me — that we’re not slowing down; we’re now accelerating the pace of reopening.”
Perhaps the rosiest development of all is that the number of people vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to grow. As of Monday, almost 9.1 million vaccine doses had been administered statewide, according to the California Department of Public Health.
But challenges remain. Echoing Walensky’s concerns, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said Sunday that recent national data suggested the drop in new daily coronavirus cases had stalled, and cases were starting to increase slightly, hovering around 70,000 a day.
Both he and Walensky warned against states moving too aggressively to loosen coronavirus restrictions and reopen their economies.
That’s especially true, Walensky said, given the continued proliferation of more-infectious coronavirus variants.
“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she said. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”
“With more data coming out on “variants such as we have in California and such as we have in New York, it is really risky to say, ‘It’s over; we’re on the way out,’ ” Fauci said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He noted that in past periods of the pandemic, such as during the summer, states moved too quickly to reopen the economy: “When we started to pull back prematurely, we saw the rebound. We definitely don’t want that to happen.”
Fauci said the coming week would help reveal where the nation was headed. If cases continue to rise, “then we’re going to go right back to the road of rebounding,” Fauci said on CNN.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Fauci said the nation needed its average number of new daily coronavirus cases to drop much lower than the current figure, “particularly in light of the fact that we have some worrisome variants that are in places like California and New York and others that we’re keeping our eye on. So it’s really too premature right now to be pulling back too much” from restrictions.
Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said in a recent news briefing, “We couldn’t say it in stronger terms: We think it is a mistake to take our foot off the gas too early, especially when we are accelerating our vaccination efforts right now.”