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California begins to pivot toward the endemic phase of Covid

The shift in posture likely makes California the first state in the union to treat Covid as endemic — that is, a virus we learn to live with, rather than seek to eradicate.

(CN) — On Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom and the state's top health officials laid out the framework for the future of how the state will respond to Covid — not for the next few weeks, but for the next few years.

Governor Gavin Newsom said the state was "moving away from a crisis mentality... moving away from a reactive mindset and a crisis mindset to a mindset of living with this virus." He added: "There is no end date. There’s no moment where we declare victory."

"Today, Covid-19 is no longer novel," said Health & Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, adding that Covid "will almost certainly become a long-term nemesis."

The shift in posture likely makes California the first state in the union to treat Covid as endemic — that is, a virus we learn to live with, rather than seek to eradicate.

Hundreds of people are still dying every day from Covid in California. The number of reported cases, however, has fallen dramatically since last month's spike, and the state is approaching pre-Omicron levels of positive cases. Compared to the rest of the country, the state's response to the pandemic has been fairly laudable: it's registered significantly fewer deaths per capita than all the other most populous states, including New York, Texas and Florida.

That success may be the result of its public policy response. The state was quick to adopt strict stay-at-home orders; later, it passed strict mask mandates and vaccine mandates. That led to a backlash, and quite a few lawsuits. Some are eager for a return to normalcy and an end to mandates, especially in schools.

California recently ended its indoor mask mandate (though some counties, like Los Angeles, have kept theirs in place), but is currently one of 13 states that still have student mask mandates in schools. Newsom said that by the end of the month, the state would set a date for ending mask mandates.

"The masks will come off," he said.

But the state is already looking past the short term policy tweaks and setting its sights on the next few years. The state will soon set benchmarks for times when mask-wearing is mandatory, strongly recommended or just recommended. Those designations will depend on one of several metrics, including number of people hospitalized for Covid and case rate.

"COVID-19 will be with us for several years to come, and having a nimble plan that can respond strategically to the twists and turns the pandemic will undoubtedly take will be invaluable for Californians," said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist with the University of California, San Francisco.

The announcement featured little in the way of concrete changes in the immediate future, but more a vague framework for how the state will approach the endemic phase of Covid, where we live with moderate transmission levels punctuated by periodic, and perhaps seasonal spikes and surges as new variants arise. The state will stock up on masks, testing kits and vaccines and will seek to expand its capacity to administer tests and vaccines. And it will roll out a new communications strategy, so that people can get simple, easy-to-digest information about the latest developments and recommendations about the virus.

"We aren’t out of the woods," said Dr. Ghaly. "We’re just more aware of the woods."

Also on Thursday, State Senate President Toni Atkins announced that a senate committee will debate ending California's Covid state of emergency next month.

“I understand we are all tired of living life in an emergency," said Atkins in a written statement, "but ending the emergency must be done responsibly to ensure there are no unintended consequences so we can continue to meet the need of our state’s residents in an unpredictable future.”

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