COVID-19 · Highlight

For Californians, COVID-19 reopening data is as closed as economy

Gov. Gavin Newsom has from the start said his coronavirus policy decisions would be driven by data shared with the public to provide maximum transparency.

But with the state starting to emerge from its worst surge, his administration won’t disclose key information that will help determine when his latest stay-at-home order is lifted.

State health officials said they rely on a very complex set of measurements that would confuse and potentially mislead the public if they were made public.

After Newsom, a Democrat, imposed the nation’s first statewide shutdown in March, his administration developed reopening plans that included benchmarks for virus data such as per capita infection rates that counties needed to meet to relax restrictions.

It released data models state officials used to project whether infections, hospitalizations and deaths are likely to rise or fall.

As cases surged after Thanksgiving, Newsom tore up his playbook. Rather than a county-by-county approach, he created five regions and established a single measurement, – ICU capacity – as the determination for whether a region was placed under a stay-at-home order.

In short order, four regions – about 98 percent of the state’s population – were under the restrictions after their capacity fell below the 15 percent threshold. A map updated daily tracks each region’s capacity.

At the start of last week, no regions appeared unlikely to have the stay-at-home order lifted soon because their capacity was well below 15 percent. But within a day, the state announced it was lifting the order for the 13-county Greater Sacramento area.

Suddenly, outdoor dining and worship services were OK again, hair and nail salons and other businesses could reopen, and retailers could have more shoppers inside.

Local officials and businesses were caught off guard. State officials did not describe their reasoning other than to say it was based on a projection for ICU capacity.

Sunday, days after the Greater Sacramento region reversal, San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond said there were rumblings that the Southern California region – which presently sits with 0.0 percent ICU capacity – would exit its stay-at-home order.

“It was a good surprise, but we just didn’t see it coming,” California Restaurant Association president and CEO Jot Condie said. “We just don’t know what happens behind the curtain. It’s created logistical difficulties for the industry,” which scrambled to rehire staff and order food.

State health officials relied on a complex formula to project that while the region’s intensive care capacity was below 10 percent, it would climb above 15 percent within four weeks. On Thursday, it was 8 percent, roughly the same as when the order was lifted.

“What happened to the 15 percent? What was that all about?” asked Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases control expert at University of California, San Francisco. “I was surprised. I assume they know something I don’t know.”

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The San Joaquin Valley Sun
Staff reports from The San Joaquin Valley Sun staff.