Southern California counties and others across the state could be cleared to open more businesses and lift other restrictions sooner than anticipated under a new plan announced on Thursday by Governor Gavin Newsom.
The revamp will, for the first time, tie reopenings to vaccination totals and will prioritize getting Covid-19 vaccines to communities hardest hit by the pandemic. It will also reportedly allow counties to have a daily rate of 10 new cases per 100,000 residents, instead of the current 7 per 100,000. The test positivity threshold for the red tier won’t change from the current 8%.
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The announcement comes about 12 hours after organizers of a recall effort targeting the governor announced that they had collected 1.9 million of the 2 million signatures they think they will need to ensure a vote of confidence in the governor’s performance.
Newsom said the state will set aside 40% of its vaccine doses for hard-hit communities, generally those that are lower income and have had higher infection rates and lower numbers of residents getting vaccinated.
“With more vaccines online and administered, California is now in a position to take steps toward ending this pandemic by keeping our guard up and by vaccinating those Californians most at risk and most exposed’ Newsom said in a statement Thursday. “Vaccinating our most impacted communities, across our state, is the right thing to do and the fastest way to end this pandemic.”
As the state makes progress in vaccinating lower-income residents, it will in turn ease the requirements counties need to meet to advance through Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the four-tiered color-coded system that regulates the opening, closure and capacity limits for businesses based on a county’s rate of new COVID infections and testing positivity rates.
All Southern California counties are currently in the most restrictive “purple” tier of that blueprint, and thus are subject to the tightest economic restrictions, including low capacity limits at retail stores and forced closures of movie theaters, indoor restaurants and indoor fitness centers. To advance to the less-restrictive “red” tier, a county’s rate of daily new COVID cases has to drop to at least 7 per 100,000 residents, and the testing positivity rate must fall below 8%.
Under the state policy shift announced Thursday, the required case rate need to advance in the blueprint and loosen restrictions on businesses will be eased once the state distributes 2 million vaccine doses to hard-hit communities across the state. That is expected to occur in the next two weeks, since the state has already delivered 1.6 million doses to those communities.
The case rates needed to advance in the economic blueprint will be adjusted again when the state reaches 4 million doses to the hard-hit communities.
While addressing equity and the massive disparities in vaccination rates is crucial both practically and morally, the goalposts of 2 million and 4 million vaccinations in underserved communities seem a bit arbitrary. If the state has already delivered 1.6 million doses to those communities, will another 400,000 really make a difference? Remember, those are doses, not completed vaccinations which, until this week or next, require 2 doses to each recipient for full protection. That means restrictions are essentially being loosened because 2.5% of the state’s 40 million residents have been vaccinated.
The governor tweeted on thursday that over 9.5 million California residents have “received doses.” Call it 10 million. Again though, until now it has taken 2 doses to achieve the full protection provided by the vaccines. So maybe 7 million people have been fully vaccinated? Roughly 3.5 million residents have had the virus. If one adds another million per Thursday’s equity requirement, that’s 11.5 million people fully vaccinated when the new, looser requirements allow further reopening. At that point, about 26% of the state’s population will be fully vaccinated. That’s a far cry from the 80-90% immunity experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci say is needed for the much-vaunted herd immunity. It’s barely half the 50% figure that the most optimistic experts say is needed. And they are few and far between.
Easing the case-rate restrictions means counties will be able to move more quickly through the four tiers of the blueprint and authorize more businesses to reopen and at higher capacities.
In making the announcement, state officials noted that COVID infection rates among households that earn less than $40,000 a year are more than double those of households with an income of $120,000 or more. Wealthier residents, however, are being vaccinated at nearly double the rate of lower- income communities.
In addition to earmarking 40% of the state’s vaccine supply to hard- hit communities, the state will also reserve vaccine-appointment slots for those communities and increase funding to boost the number of vaccine providers.
Newsom previewed the plan on Wednesday during a visit to Long Beach, where he stressed that the state wasn’t eliminating the economic tier system, simply adjusting the thresholds to take vaccination efforts into account.
“We want to incorporate vaccination rates into the tiering, and that will allow people to move more quickly through the tiers,” he said.
He touted the continued downward trend in COVID numbers statewide, saying the current rate of people testing positive for the virus has dropped to 2.2%, among the lowest rates in the nation.
But he insisted the pandemic is not over, and said it is too early for people to stop wearing masks or practicing social distancing. He noted the continued emergency of COVID variants that can spread more quickly and could lead to another surge in cases.
“That’s why it’s essential and incumbent that we not put down our guard, moreover, remove our masks as it relates to addressing the transmissibility of this disease that is still taking thousands of lives every
single day — hundreds of lives lost every single day here in the state of California,” Newsom said. “It is a deadly disease. It is not taking spring break off. It has not taken a day off since this time last year.
“We will defeat it. We will turn the proverbial page. We are doing so, but let us please maintain our vigilance as we work through and get to the herd immunity.”
City News Service contributed to this report.