California May Use “Emergency Brakes” As Rapidly-Evolving Coronavirus Outbreak Worsens: “We Will Do What We Need To Protect The Health Of Californians”

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AP Photo/Francisco Seco

On Friday, California’s Director of Health and Human Services summed up his 45 minute press conference in three words: “I am worried.”

Dr. Mark Ghaly then tried to underline the urgency of his words by saying, “This is an important, immediate situation.”

Ghaly’s cohort Dr. Erica Pan outlined the numbers behind those sentiments.

The acting state health officer revelaed that there were 6,893 new cases COVID-19 recorded on Friday. That’s higher than the 7-day average of 6,773.

The 14 day test positivity rate is now 4.0%. That’s 1 point higher than just 2 weeks ago.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations are up 34% over 2 weeks.

Patients with COVID-19 in the state’s ICU units have risen by over a 3rd in the past two weeks to 931.

“This isn’t positive news,” noted Ghaly before revealing that this rise in hospitalizations, when compared with the previous big spike in July, is a “early 20% more rapid rise.”

Given that, “We are actively discussing this with our local health officials and internally about what we can do with this rapid rate of rise and what we could do with the ’emergency brakes’ we built in from the beginning,” said Ghaly. “Our concern with this rapid rate of rise is that the peak could be higher [than in July] if we don’t restrict.”

When pushed on what those “emergency brakes” might be, the HHS director focused mostly on increasingly rapid movement for counties back into more a restrictive status in the state’s tiered reopening blueprint.

“Now may be the time when counties move back after only 1 week [instead of waiting two],” proposed Ghaly. “To date, we’ve had counties move back only one tier at a time,” he continued before imagining that counties might jump back multiple tiers at once.

He also announced state guidelines for holiday gatherings. That came on the heels of a morning announcement from Newsom that the state had issued a travel advisory and travel quarantine recommendations.

Earlier in the week Ghaly presided over the announcement that 11 of the state’s counties would be sliding back into more restrictive coronavirus tiers. It was the first time since Governor Gavin Newsom announced his Blueprint for a Safer Economy (see chart below) that none of the state’s counties moved forward, according to Ghaly. The director also offered a preview of what’s to come.

“As we look forward to next week and we see which counties may have missed their current tier threshold this week, we anticipate if things stay the way they are, that between this week and next week over half of California counties will have moved into a more restrictive tier,” Ghaly said. “And so that certainly is an indication that we’re concerned and that we have to keep a close watch on what’s happening.”

That would mean that next Tuesday’s tiering announcement will see at least another 19 of the state’s 58 counties move backward into a more restrictive tier of the governor’s reopening blueprint.

But what of those counties — like Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino — already in the most stringent Purple tier? And what if the majority of the state’s counties soon fall into that tier?

“Purple is our most restrictive tier,” said Ghaly. “Many are already there. We’re going to work with counties. If additional changes to the Purple tier are required, we’re going to work with our local counties to see what’s there. We are not looking today at a statewide stay-at-home order. We know Californians are fatigued.”

Ghaly said that during the shutdown in March, the state used “blunt tools” to control spread. “Today we have good information about the activities” that spread the disease, he observed, before implying that the state would look to use a scalpel rather than a club when implementing restrictions.

“That said,” Ghaly added, “this is a quickly, rapidly evolving situation and we will do what we need to make sure to protect the health of Californians.”

Those assessments would not just be made the night before press conferences or even just on weekdays, said the director in what may have been a bit of foreshadowing. “We’re looking at situation not just during the week, but over the weekend, as well.”

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