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Newsom Unveils 'SMARTER Plan' Outlining California's New Approach to COVID

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) -- With new cases plunging and a universal indoor mask mandate lifted for the vaccinated, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday provided details on the state's new "SMARTER Plan" for coexisting with the coronavirus.

An early release on details of the plan outlined that "SMARTER" was an acronym that listed a number of important elements to the new plan: Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education and Rx, representing "evolving and improving treatments that will become increasingly available."

The introduction to the "SMARTER plan" noted that California has led the nation when it comes to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, taking "early public health measures that saved lives."

SMARTER plan graphic
SMARTER plan graphic (CBS)

"It is clear the virus will remain with us for some time, if not forever," the early release read. "It is less clear how often and how much it will continue to impact our health and well-being. However, we know what works, and have built the necessary tools over the last two years that allows us to learn and hone our defenses to this virus as it evolves."

Gov. Newsom spoke Thursday afternoon at a press conference at a warehouse full of PPE in Fontana to introduce the new plan, noting that California has suffered a great deal during the pandemic.

Governor Newsom Unveils the Next Phase of California's Nation-Leading Pandemic Response by California Governor Gavin Newsom on YouTube

"We have been ravaged by this; the number of lives lost, those that have lost loved ones, those that have lost confidence and trust, not just in institutions, but often in each other," Newsom said. "Relationships that have been frayed, those that are feeling more lonely, more isolated and disconnected than ever."

The governor acknowledged that the state still had work to do in order to "turn the proverbial page" in the pandemic.

"What we're announcing here today is about turning the page. Moving from this crisis mentality, moving from a reactive framework to a framework where we are more sentinel in our approach," Newsom said as he introduced the new plan. "Moving away from a reactive mindset and a crisis mindset to living with this virus."

The plan presumes the most populous state is entering an endemic stage, where the virus still exists in a community but becomes manageable as immunity builds.

Newsom admitted that, despite the many metaphors used earlier in the pandemic as far as "fighting" and "defeating" the virus, "there is not a moment where we declare victory."

But he explained that there were reasons behind the name of the SMARTER plan beyond what the letters of the acronym stand for.

"We are smarter, two years later; we are more adaptable, more capable to understand the nature of this disease, its mutations and its variants," said Newsom.

He also said the new plan will focus on preparing for the future.

"We recognize, with humility, that we don't know what we don't know as it relates to the future. But we have never been more prepared for that future," he said. "It's in that spirit of optimism that we move into a new phase of addressing the challenges and the reality of this disease."

Marin Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Karin Shavelson called Newsom's plan "solid" and a "realistic" approach to what the future will look like in an endemic.

"I'm particularly happy about the testing portion of his plan," Shavelson said. "I think if we make testing more a part of the culture of what we do that would be really helpful. I think Omicron, we knew it was coming, but it came really quickly. I mean it was like a tidal wave, and so I think we learned a lot."

During a question and answer session later in the press conference, Newsom was asked once again about when the state would lift its masking mandate for schools.

"We're among the 13 states that have not ended their school masking requirements. Just today, the governor of Washington state announced prospectively that he would be ending it on the 21st of next month," Newsom said. "I have stated very clearly that on the 28th of this month we will be announcing a specific date. That date with destiny, the masks will come off, and we'll do it in an appropriate manner. We continue to consult with parents, most importantly, and I can assure you that there are parents that have strong opinions on both sides of the issue."

The plan additionally calls for a continued emphasis on efforts in vulnerable and underserved populations that have experienced disproportionately high death rates. And it includes new education, including "myth-buster videos" to fight misinformation and disinformation and help interpret ever-evolving precautions for a confused public whiplashed by safeguards that seemingly shift by the day and vary across county lines.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly argued that the state will remain ready into the foreseeable future to ensure that local jurisdictions have access to necessities like masks and PCR and rapid testing that help mitigate and monitor the virus' spread.

The plan sets a number of benchmarks to that effect, including the maintenance of a stockpile of at least 75 million masks and the capacity to perform at least 500,000 tests and administer 200,000 vaccines per day.

"Today is about balance ... between a message of hope and successful adaptation, but also prepared vigilance," Ghaly said. "Today is not about moving on, but rather about moving forward."

Ghaly suggested that the state will move away from its blanket public health measures like mask mandates as part of the SMARTER plan, arguing that those responsibilities should largely shift to local governments.

He added that previous standardized responses to the virus' spread across the state will likely be ineffective in the future, as many of the state's 58 counties will have differing levels of viral transmission at any given time.

All this will cost billions, much of it already outlined in the $3.2 billion pandemic response package Newsom sought as part of his budget last month. That includes $1.9 million that lawmakers already approved to boost staffing at hospitals and increase coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution, as well as existing money and anticipated federal funds.

Newsom's proposed budget also includes $1.7 billion to beef up the state's health care workforce, with more investment in increased laboratory testing capacity, data collection and outbreak investigation.

The announcement of the SMARTER plan is part of a flurry of activity by state officials in recent weeks to modify health and safety measures as COVID cases and hospitalizations continue their sharp drops from record highs during the omicron surge.

The state lifted its indoor mask requirement Wednesday for vaccinated residents and officials are expected to announce by the end of the month when masking requirements in schools may be relaxed.

Ghaly juxtaposed Thursday's announcement with the state's previous major transitions in its pandemic response, noting that there will be no "Pomp and Circumstance" or "triumphant celebration" as there was when the state lifted its tiered reopening system last June.

"We're gliding into normal, we're not announcing the normal," he said, adding that the state will move into the virus' next phase with "humble confidence."

Ghaly noted that California will likely still see seasonal COVID surges around the beginning of the academic year and during winter, but said that future COVID-related restrictions are highly unlikely.

"We started with much more restrictive interventions, stay-at-home orders, capacity limitations, but those are years ago from a COVID perspective," he said. "The hope is that because of our SMARTER approach, because of our ability to see what's coming, address what's coming, manage what's coming, that those are things of the past."

Health experts across the state lauded the plan, calling it a model for the future of COVID response in other states.

They also argued that California has the lowest per capita COVID death rate in the country due in large part to the public health measures it has implemented and expressed confidence in the state's future efforts to combat the virus.

The announcement comes newly two years after Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, imposed the nation's first statewide stay-home order, temporarily crippling the state's economy in contrast to approaches in Republican states like Florida and Texas that took a more hands-off approach.

California's economy and tax revenue have since rebounded, producing record budget surpluses that along with federal money have paid for billions of dollars in virus-related programs and economic assistance.

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, but health experts have been expecting the coronavirus to eventually become endemic.

The omicron surge is ebbing as quickly as it spiked in December, with new cases falling back to near pre-surge levels. Hospitalizations and intensive care cases were also falling, and the state's forecasting models predict a continued gradual easing over the next month.

Newsom last week said the state's plan will build on what officials have learned over the last two years.

It will include mass testing to spot new surges and virus variants along with quarantines and other data-driven precautions where needed, he said, along with a continued emphasis on vaccinations and booster shots that can prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death.

The state will also mount a new effort to counter misinformation and disinformation that can discourage vaccinations, Newsom said. Disinformation is generally considered to be intentional or deliberate falsehoods, while misinformation can be inadvertent.

Ghaly said the same constant, intensive monitoring will be useful in spotting other similar respiratory airborne diseases, while leading to improvements in California's overall public health system.

"For California and our future, it is about being ready and being prepared," Ghaly said. That includes "learning from what we've done, learning from our experiences to date and making sure Californians can feel confident in the tools that we're putting together."

© Copyright 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. KPIX correspondent Maria Cid Medina and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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