California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that he is expanding efforts to reach underserved communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic by opening 86 new testing sites to ensure more equitable access across the state.
Officials have identified "testing deserts," or communities that may struggle to access COVID-19 tests, including rural and remote parts of the state, and areas in urban centers which are predominantly black and Latino communities. He did not specify the exact locations or when they would open, but that they would be strategically placed to address equal access.
The Wednesday news briefing was the first of what will become a weekly update on California's response to and recovery from the crisis, meant to detail progress on a six-indicator framework Newsom outlined last week for how and when to transition back to normalcy. He will continue daily news briefings, and but will devote Wednesdays to the framework.
Testing, tracing and isolating hot spots, are among the most important aspects of that plan, he said, and a key indicator for when he can safely begin to modify his statewide stay-at-home orders that have now been in place for more than a month.
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"We have tried to make it crystal clear that there is no light switch and there is no date," he said, adding that decisions are driven by evidence, not ideology.
"The clarity we are providing today," he added, "is the clarity of indicators that drive that decision-making."
For now, Newsom said, the social distancing orders must remain.
"I have made it clear in the past that we won't just reopen things," he said. "We will open and modify how we conduct our business."
California conducting 16,000 tests per day
Along with opening the 86 new sites, Newsom said Californiais on track to reach the stated goal of 25,000 tests conducted per day by the end of the month. Already, 465,227 people have been tested in the state, and "that number is still inadequate to meet the needs," Newsom said. California has nearly 40 million people.
But some progress has been made,he said. In March, roughly 2,000 tests were conducted per day, on average. This week, there were an average of 16,000 tests conducted per day.
"Our goal is north of 60,000 tests a day," Newsom added. "That is a phase one goal — a short-term goal."
However, supply chain issues in California are making it difficult to quickly expand testing capacity, especially when it comes to the swabs needed to take samples. Newsom said the federal government had stepped up to help, promising 100,000 swabs this week and 250,000 next week.
Newsom also shared that officials are working to "build an army of tracers," who will trace newly infected individuals — and who they came into contact with — to isolate potential hotspots and new outbreak areas.
Details are still scant on the project, but Newsom said the state is in the process of creating an online academy and asking counties about their tracing capacity. Newsom said the ultimate goal is to train 10,000 people to conduct the tracing in the coming weeks.
Contact tracing isn't a new idea — it was used to tamper previous outbreaks like SARS, and Ebola, and to battle other infectious diseases including sexually transmitted diseases.
Other countries have relied on testing and tracing to keep their economies open amid the threat of new outbreaks, including South Korea, where there are now no lockdown orders in place. The country is being looked at as a model for leaders as they navigate the delicate transition away from strict social distancing.
In South Korea, officials were able to test at a much more massive scale, which helped ensure treatment and isolation was swift. But the country also relied on technology to track movements and interactions.
Using data from police databases, credit card companies, and telecommunications providers, South Korean officials built a contact tracing system that adeptly tracks the movements of COVID-19 infected individuals.
It's unlikely that California would roll out an identical model, but Newsom has identified tracing as an essential step toward reopening the economy. South Korea's system has enabled the country's residents to go back to work, meet up at bars, and more or less return to the lives they had before the crisis.
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Newsom eases some medical restrictions
While the governor emphasized that he is not yet able to give residents a sense of a timeline for reopening the state, he announced that he was ready to lift restrictions on scheduled surgeries. Those procedures had been postponed in order to reduce the burden on hospitals in the event of a huge surge of coronavirus patients.
The easing of this order does not include cosmetic procedures but is intended to help those who have serious medical needs.
“We are working with our health directors throughout our healthcare delivery system to get these surgeries up and running again," Newsom said, noting tumor and heart valve surgeries as examples.
This is the first modification to the statewide social distancing orders that have been in place over the last month, and comes a week after his announcement of a framework for reopening the state. Newsom said he hopes to continue easing orders in "different sectors of our economy and different sectors of our society" in the weeks to come.
But, he warned, progress depends on continued stabilization of new COVID-19cases, hospitalizations, intensive care needs, and the daily death toll.
"If we pull back too soon, those announcements will not be forthcoming," he said, and would not do justice to the work Californians have already done to flatten the curve.
For now, he concluded as he often does: "Stay home, stay healthy and stay connected."
Gabrielle Canon is a California reporter for the USA Today Network. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @GabrielleCanon.