As CA goes to endemic state, what does it mean for Angelenos?

Written by Vincent Nguyen, produced by Jenna Kagel

Governor Gavin Newsom’s “SMARTER Plan” provides an outline of California’s shift from a coronavirus pandemic to an endemic. Some health care officials say it will help curb the stress at local clinics and hospitals. Photo by Shutterstock.

COVID numbers in LA County have been dropping for a few weeks, and emergency pandemic rules are set to expire in March. California is the first state in the country to pivot from approaching the pandemic as a crisis to treating it as endemic.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced the “SMARTER Plan” on Feb. 17 — the blueprint for the state’s transition. The name is an acronym for shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and Rx, or treatment. 

It’s a massive shift because of our experience with coronavirus in the last two years, according to Paula Cannon, professor of microbiology and immunology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. 

“Most people are vaccinated,” she says. “Many people are boosted. We're starting to get the first range of pretty good looking antiviral drugs, and everybody now knows how to get tested. What has changed is the support in the background into which COVID is happening, and that, of course, massively changes the outcome.”

It’s an expensive plan, but much of it was approved as part of the governor’s budget last month. The state will stockpile masks and tests in case of future outbreaks, and it will closely monitor communities and individuals who have been directly and indirectly impacted by the virus. 

As the state prepares for the shift, LA County moved forward with lifting its outdoor mask mandate last week, and LA Unified School District followed suit. Starting Feb. 23, indoor masking will be optional for county businesses that already require full vaccinations, though they can still enforce mask rules if they want to.

Some county health care facilities are ready to pull back on restrictions once the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal OSHA) updates COVID regulations. Officials at Watts Healthcare plan to reduce the level of screening for both patients and staff.

“I do believe that we are moving in the right direction,” says Watts Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Oliver T. Brooks. “I think the governor is doing it in a fashion that is objective and he's using data.”

Brooks stresses that the virus will still be with us, and his biggest concern is the impact long COVID will have on the community. 

However, the state’s decision could reduce the stress on local hospitals and health care workers, Brooks says. Hospitals around the country have faced staffing shortages because many employees have quit due to burnout or higher pay elsewhere. 

“It's such a heavy burden that many people are feeling like ‘is it worth it?’” Brooks says. “Some people decide it isn't and need to go into another profession, or some of them are further along in their careers and just retire.” 

COVID wings aren’t currently necessary since hospitalizations numbers are so low, and moderate infection control and treatment could help build back the health center's full-time nursing staff. Brooks says the facility filled the staffing gaps by hiring traveling or per diem nurses, but the endemic approach will reduce the demand for traveling nurses.

“As we have less issues with infection control and just lessen the stress on the health care system, I believe that we will have nurses coming back and working full-time [and] part-time.”

Cannon and Brooks both say that outdoor masking can still be a good preventative measure, even though it is optional.