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California unveils plan to become first state to treat coronavirus as ‘endemic’ risk

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announces California's next phase in its pandemic response at a warehouse in Fontana on Feb. 17. (Watchara Phomicinda/Orange County Register/AP)

California’s governor announced a milestone Thursday, saying his state would become the first in the nation to treat the coronavirus as a manageable, endemic risk. His decision marks a significant new phase in the state’s covid response and could be a bellwether as officials elsewhere in the country look to resume a level of normalcy.

“We are moving past the crisis phase into a phase where we will work to live with this virus,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a news conference.

“People are looking forward to turning the page,” he added. “They also need to know we have their back, we’re going to keep them safe, and we’re going to stay on top of this.”

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California’s plan, he said, shifts from a “crisis mentality” to emphasize prevention and adaptability, allowing officials to step up measures to detect and contain fresh outbreaks, as well as to look out for new variants. It also includes more public campaigns against misinformation and the stockpiling of tests and equipment rather than mask mandates and business shutdowns.

Newsom’s “Smarter” plan (standing for shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and Rx) includes maintaining a store of 75 million masks, increasing vaccination and daily testing numbers, monitoring wastewater for virus remnants, and responding to surges in cases by quickly bringing in extra medical workers via contracts with national staffing companies.

The plan marks a momentous shift for California, which since the pandemic began has recorded more than 82,000 covid-19 deaths, according to the state’s latest data.

But California, like many parts of the country, has also seen a decline in new infections after a sharp increase spurred by the omicron variant. This week, it ended its mask mandate for fully vaccinated residents, though state health officials still strongly encourage mask-wearing in public indoor spaces.

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The approach for California’s almost 40 million residents could herald similar changes throughout the United States, but widely varying vaccination rates mean some areas may be better prepared than others. Some 35 percent of Americans are still not fully vaccinated.

“This pandemic won’t have a defined end. There’s no finish line,” Newsom said at Thursday’s announcement. “There is no end date.”

However, he said that his plan responds to growing public fatigue with public health measures meant to contain the virus and that he maintained a “spirit of optimism.”

Not all welcomed Newsom’s plan. California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson in a statement Thursday called it “over-hyped.” “Gavin Newsom today served an extra-large helping of word salad and little else,” she added.

Newsom told reporters the new policy represented “a more sensible, and I would argue, more sustainable health-care approach based on the lessons learned.”

A handful of countries have begun to shift their covid responses to treat the virus as endemic, meaning to accept that it will exist at manageable levels for many years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “endemic” as “the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area.”

However, the United States is not there yet, according to public health officials.

This month, Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, did not use the word “endemic” but told the Financial Times that the country was moving out of the coronavirus pandemic’s “full-blown” phase to a point where restrictions could be eased and the virus made more manageable.

Fauci also told Reuters on Wednesday that Americans and others around the world were ready to “get their life back.”

“You don’t want to be reckless and throw everything aside, but you’ve got to start inching towards” normality, he said, adding that the pandemic’s impact on mental health and children’s schooling, among other concerns, would need to be weighed against the virus’s toll in most states.

His tone was echoed in the White House, where response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters Wednesday: “We’re moving toward a time when covid isn’t a crisis, but is something we can protect against and treat. The president and our covid team are actively planning for the future.”

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Albert Ko, chair of the department of epidemiology and microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Post last month that the shift from pandemic to endemic was never instant and could be hard to define.

“This is not a situation where you have a flip of the switch, like, we’re pandemic one day and then we switch to endemic,” Ko said. “This is a gradual process, and this is the process that we’re undergoing now.”