Beach goers enjoy the sunshine in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. Last week, the CDC recommended that everyone wear protective masks while in public to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
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California’s response to coronavirus, explained

Beach goers enjoy the sunshine in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. Last week, the CDC recommended that everyone wear protective masks while in public to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Introduction

When California reported its first coronavirus death on March 4, it shattered the collective myth that the virus was doing harm somewhere, elsewhere in the world. Within 15 days, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a first-in-the-nation mandate for all 40 million residents to shelter in place to slow the virus’s spread. Since then, daily life has been suspended as families mourn lost loved ones and health care workers risk themselves to fight a microscopic enemy. 

Like most of America, health officials worried about the adequacy of medical supplies as limited testing had masked the extent of the outbreak. Nonetheless, the state responded on multiple fronts: securing ventilators and masks, finding extra recovery beds and summoning retired doctors and student nurses. For everybody else, Newsom’s order to stay home meant that days blended into weeks, anxious to learn whether California had flattened the curve.

The alternative was exponentially worse: Early on, Newsom warned that doing nothing meant as many as 25.5 million Californians would contract the virus. 

When the worst does pass and life somehow resumes, the virus will leave deep, lasting scars. The death toll will mount. The health system stretched. The economy crippled. And unemployment rolls overfull. All the while, city councils, county boards and the state Legislature will have watched helplessly as tax collections evaporate from government coffers. The task of rebuilding will be daunting. But the first step begins, simply, by learning from the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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What is COVID-19?

The 2019 novel coronavirus causes COVID-19, a pneumonia-like disease with symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. In some cases, it can lead to lung damage and can be fatal. 

Because the disease is thought mainly to pass through close contact with an infected person, health experts have recommended social distancing to slow its spread. The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends people stay at least six feet from each other and wear face masks while in public.

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How many Californians have it?

The California Department of Public Health announced the state’s first two cases of coronavirus infection on Jan. 26. The first death was recorded March 4. In the following weeks, confirmed cases shot into the thousands, with hospitalizations increasing exponentially. But because many patients haven’t been tested, the number of confirmed cases is believed to be an undercount. 

Since the outbreak began in China, the U.S. has taken the lead in confirmed cases. Newsom projects the virus will reach its peak in California in mid-May, though other models differ.

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How many have died?

Hundreds have died from COVID-19 in California. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, heart and lung diseases, are at heightened risk. And people who are immunocompromised may also be more vulnerable. 

But the youth are not invincible. A 25-year-old died in Riverside County. In March, public health officials initially labeled a 17-year-old’s death in Lancaster as coronavirus-related, but that case remains under investigation

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What’s California doing to stop the spread of coronavirus?

Unable to stop the spread completely, on March 19 Newsom became the first governor to issue a shelter-in-place mandate, meaning people shouldn’t leave their homes except for essential needs like groceries and prescriptions. By reducing contact, UC Berkeley epidemiology professor Lee Riley says it’s ”the best strategy” to slow the spread of coronavirus so as not to overwhelm the health care system. 

Right before the state went on lockdown, Newsom wrote a letter to President Donald Trump warning that 56% of Californians, or 25.5 million, might be infected by coronavirus over an eight-week period without preventative action. 

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How is the state adding capacity?

Estimating California needs 50,000 additional hospital beds, the state has gotten creative by parking a naval hospital ship in Los Angeles and converting an old basketball arena in Sacramento. The state has also propped up two bankrupt hospitals, St. Vincent in Los Angeles and Seton in the Bay Area, to meet increased demand. 

For extra staff, Newsom called on retired and part-time doctors and nurses, as well as students close to graduation, to expand the number of health care workers who can treat COVID-19 patients. Through an executive order, he wants to grant nurse practitioners more authority to work independently, a move long resisted by doctors.

The governor has also turned his attention to procuring ventilators and masks, working with nonprofits and the private sector. Lawmakers want oversight.

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Why so few tests?

The CDC’s tests were flawed from the beginning, which caused a delay throughout the country. The federal agency was also criticized for preventing state and local public health labs and qualified private labs from creating their own tests. That left California researchers playing catch-up.

Despite increased testing, California continued to face a backlog of people waiting for results. 

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Who are essential workers?

Disneyland and movie theaters are closed but grocery stores and pharmacies are open. The state has released an extensive list of essential workers, which includes Uber and Lyft drivers and restaurant delivery workers. Some cities and counties imposed tighter restrictions.

To help people cooped up at home, state regulators loosened restrictions on alcohol and cannabis. Restaurants can sell cocktails to go and weed customers can receive contactless deliveries. 

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What is the state doing to cushion the blow?

The closure of so many businesses will likely cause another recession. Already, the number of unemployment benefit claims has surpassed claims during the peak of the Great Recession. Food stamp applications have also spiked.

Workers should anticipate delays on their unemployment checks even as the federal government boosts weekly payments by $600. Normally, it takes at least three weeks to process a claim, but a report suggests the state’s Employment Development Department’s antiquated system and a major influx of claims will probably delay payouts.

For taxpayers, the income tax deadline has been pushed to July 15 by the federal Internal Revenue Service and the state’s Franchise Tax Board. But the deadline on other types of taxes, like property taxes, vary by county. 

Jackie Botts and Ben Christopher contributed to this card.

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What about small businesses?

The National Federation of Independent Business, a small business advocacy group, found that 76% of small businesses have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.  

To help, Newsom issued an executive order extending the deadline for small businesses to file state tax returns of less than $1 million. This gives small businesses a 90-day extension to file their first-quarter returns. 

Small businesses can also apply for a loan under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The federal aid provides nearly $350 billion to help small businesses access loans faster. For businesses that don’t qualify, the state has allocated an additional $50 million and people can apply with participating lenders here

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How will students learn?

Six million California public school students were let out of school early. The state is urging districts to turn to online learning and has even told parents to take advantage of PBS programming, but the huge shift to kitchen-table learning has left parents reeling

For nearly 800,000 students who rely on special education services, the struggle to manage children who need behavioral and speech therapy is even greater.

The pivot to remote learning has only exacerbated the academic divide, setting back students without computers or internet access. Districts across the state have to negotiate with teacher unions, causing another delay.

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What about people who are homeless?

Newsom declared housing homeless individuals of his top priorities but just as before the pandemic, the response has felt piecemeal. The governor has pledged to secure 15,000 hotel and motel rooms but a fraction have been placed. Not all trailers have yet to be distributed.

Newsom allocated $150 million in emergency funds to help local authorities house people who are homeless.

Jackie Botts and Matt Levin contributed to this card.

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How long will the lockdown last?

A man wearing disposable gloves and a bandana over his face walks past a boarded up shop on Haight Street in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. California is entering the fourth week of sheltering in place to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A man wearing disposable gloves and a bandana over his face walks past a boarded up shop on Haight Street in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. California is entering the fourth week of sheltering in place to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Unclear. Social distancing appears to be working and will only work if people follow the rules. Students won’t be returning to schools for the remainder of the academic year. And public health will dictate when it’s safe to lift the orders.

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Got a question?

CalMatters fielded thousands of questions about the coronavirus outbreak. Send us your question and find responses here.