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California Reopening: Santa Clara County Health Officer Says Gov. Newsom Moving Too Quickly

SACRAMENTO (KPIX 5/AP) -- Gavin Newsom has crafted himself as a data-driven governor, letting the facts dictate what has been a largely cautious approach to public safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Now some California health officials are wondering if that's still the case as he moves rapidly through his four phases for reopening the state.

"The pace at which the state has made these modifications is concerning to me," said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County's Health Officer, who issued the first stay-at-home order in the country in March.

Speaking off-camera to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Dr. Cody made her strongest critique yet of the governor's approach and how the pace of re-opening could be endangering lives.

"The state modifications are being made without a real understanding of what the consequences of what the last move has been," said Cody. "Making changes too frequently leaves us blind."

While noting that the number of coronavirus infections is still going up in California, Gov. Newsom announced plans to ease restrictions on the stay at home order this week.

"Those were statewide orders that were put out over the last few days and you should expect more of those directives and guidelines to be put out over the next few days," Newsom said.

In less than 10 days, Newsom has announced rules allowing 47 of the state's 58 counties to reopen restaurants and malls, religious services, and, as of Tuesday, hair salons. He said Wednesday that gyms could be open within weeks. All must be done with modifications.

He leaves all of the reopening decisions to local officials, laying out goals counties should hit on testing, tracing and caseloads. But the rapid relaxation has raised concern from some health experts and lawmakers given that it can take two to three weeks for a new outbreak to show up in the data.

"We have dry tinder everywhere and we do not want to have a large fire again," Cody said Wednesday. "What we don't want is a fire burning out of control that we can't see, so that's why we're going to move slowly."

However, the governor is leaving it to the counties to make up their own guidelines, and Cody indicated Santa Clara County will remain one of the most restrictive in California.

Cody argues that each new phase of re-opening should be at least two weeks, preferably three, after the previous phase began to gauge whether the loosening is causing infections to spike.

It's a very measured approach supported by University of California Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. John Swartzberg.

"Newsom is under tremendous pressure, not just economically but from people biting at the bit to have more in their lives.  And we all want that." said Dr. Swartzberg. "But it's that perfect balance we're looking for but of course perfection can never be found."

California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said the state guidance is "not a direction or a determination" that a county should allow certain businesses to reopen.

"We aren't in the business of pushing forward counties to open sooner or stay closed longer than they themselves feel they should," he said. He said the state will keep monitoring indicators to help counties address concerns if they arise.

Tough restrictions may be an increasingly hard sell in many parts of the state and county where people want to get back to near normal.

"I'm reflecting on a comment made to me by my constituent who said the reason this is so confusing is because it's so confusing," said Supervisor Joe Simitian.

Cody also said economic recovery won't happen "until people feel safe because they are safe."

Only two of the six Bay Area counties that initially all made the mid-March decision to lock down, San Francisco and Santa Clara, have seen the rate of cases level off or decline in the last week, one of the requirements under Newsom's initial directive to begin reopening. Hospitalizations have flattened or decreased in all six counties.

David Relman, a microbiologist and immunologist at Stanford Medicine, shared Cody's skepticism. The criteria around testing and tracing is reasonable, he said, but he questions whether counties are really able to implement the rules and respond to potential outbreaks.

"If something fails we have two problems: One is we're not going to know for a little while and during that lag time things are worsening without us knowing it," Relman said. "And the second thing is that you then have to be able to catch back up, to push back and restore stability."

State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) posted a list of questions the state should answer before reopening further, including "Based of testing and hospitalization data, it appears there are more COVID-19 infections today than when sheltering in place began on March 20. If so, why are we loosening restrictions?"

The Democratic governor on Tuesday said he's confident about moving forward because the state is now testing more than 60,000 people a day, has stable rates of positive cases, adequate protective equipment for workers who need it and roughly 3,000 contact tracers to track the spread. That's still short of his goal of 10,000.

Still, he acknowledged: "We are entering into the unknown, the untested," and that the state and counties must be prepared to tighten restrictions again if necessary.

From Sacramento County, which reopened restaurants last week, Sen. Richard Pan, a doctor, says he's a "little concerned with the rapidity with which we're moving." He was not surprised about the state's move to allow restaurants, shopping malls, child care and other services to open with modifications. But he was surprised to see the governor's quick announcement, less than a week later, that churches and hair salons could reopen.

Other Democrats supported Newsom's move, including Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, who represents parts of Orange County, which was also cleared to reopen restaurants over the weekend.

"If everyone follows the rules and the guidelines and the modifications . . . we absolutely can move through this safely and responsibly," she said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. California has had nearly 100,000 cases and more than 3,800 people have died.

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Len Ramirez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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