In summary

Newsom looks to ramp up testing, tracing and autopsies in battle against coronavirus. Potential app to track COVID-19 cases raises privacy concerns.

Good morning, California. It’s Thursday, April 23.

Governor scrambles for more data: tests, tracers, autopsies

A nursing student does patient check-in at Cal Expo in Sacramento. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

One thing is clear: Public health officials are just beginning to grasp the scope of the spread of COVID-19 in California. It appears more widespread and to have been present in the state earlier than previously thought. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to ramp up testing, tracing and autopsies to learn more about what’s going on.

Newsom said Wednesday that California is averaging 16,000 tests per day with plans to expand the daily total to 25,000 by the end of April and 60,000 to 80,000 soon after. He announced several efforts to reach that goal:

  1. Procuring more testing swabs, which are in short supply. Newsom said he talked Wednesday to President Donald Trump, who promised to send California 100,000 swabs this week, 250,000 next week and more after that.
  2. Eighty-six new testing sites will be opened in rural areas and “black and brown communities” in urban centers.
  3. 1.5 million serological tests will be available to test for antibodies to the virus, indicating whether people have been infected and, potentially, have immunity.
  4. An “army” of 10,000 public health tracers to track community spread of the virus.

How much testing and tracing is needed to reopen the economy?

It remains unclear. Newsom said some studies suggest testing 152 out of 100,000 people daily (or 60,000 tests/day in California) and others suggest testing 1% of the population daily (400,000 tests/day in California).

What we’ve learned, though, is how much we didn’t know before.

On Tuesday evening, health officials announced that the first known U.S. coronavirus death happened in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6, not three weeks later in Washington state, as was previously thought. On Wednesday, Newsom asked coroners across the state to review autopsies back to December.

  • Newsom: Reviewing autopsies will “ultimately help guide a deeper understanding of when this pandemic really started to impact Californians directly. … When this occurred is important forensic information, profoundly significant in terms of understanding the epidemiology of this disease.”

Two recent studies also indicated the virus was more widespread than previously thought. There have been questions about methodology, but one study found Santa Clara County had 50 to 85 times more coronavirus cases than previously recorded, and another indicated Los Angeles County had 28 to 55 times the recorded cases.

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The Bottom Line: As of 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night, California had 37,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,437 deaths from the virus, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker. (These numbers are different from those of the state Department of Public Health, which are updated less often.)

Also: CalMatters is tracking, by county, positive and suspected cases of COVID-19 patients hospitalized throughout the state. We’re also tracking the state’s daily actions. And we have an explainer for everything you need to know about California’s response to coronavirus.

Other stories you should know

1. Tracing the spread of COVID-19? There’s an app for that — and privacy concerns

Image via iStock

One day in the not-so-distant future, your phone could ping with an alert that you were recently in contact with someone who had COVID-19, suggesting you get tested. Developing a public health surveillance system to monitor, track down and isolate new cases is key to preventing future outbreaks and California relaxing its shelter-in-place order, experts say. But companies like Google and Apple developing apps to track the virus’ spread has reignited a longstanding data-privacy debate, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports.

  • Amnesty International, other organizations in an open letter: Beware of public health campaigns being “used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance … these are extraordinary times, but human rights law still applies.”
  • Adam Conner of the Center for American Progress: “The value proposition of an app that allows you to learn if you’ve gotten near to someone with COVID-19,” potentially saving your life, “is pretty compelling.”

2. What Californians think about homeschooling, economy, personal finances amid pandemic

Lucia Soares helps her two younger children, Emily, 9, and Daniel, 16, with their schoolwork in their Modesto home. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Over 90% of California parents with children 18 or under approve of how their local school districts are handling COVID-19 closures, and a solid majority also approve of how Newsom is handling K-12 education, according to a statewide poll from the Public Policy Institute of California released Wednesday. Nevertheless, a solid majority of parents also expressed concern about providing productive learning at home, with those making less than $60,000 per year more likely to be concerned than parents with higher salaries.

Other noteworthy findings:

  • Optimism about the state’s economy has dropped significantly — just 19% of Californians expect good financial times in the next year, down from 49% in January.
  • And 78% of adults worry they or a family member will get sick from coronavirus, while 75% worry the pandemic will negatively impact their finances.

3. Can California’s small private colleges survive the pandemic?

Painting major Nikolas Schumann recovers a canvas from the closed Chestnut Street campus of San Francisco Art Institute. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

California’s small private colleges are facing challenges ranging from financial turmoil to closure as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc, CalMatters’ Felicia Mello reports. These independent colleges can’t rely on state tax dollars to stay afloat, like the UC and CSU systems, and don’t have the sizable endowments of schools like Stanford. In addition, many of their biggest selling points — charming campuses and face time with professors — don’t apply in the distance-learning world. Already, two Bay Area colleges, the San Francisco Art Institute and Notre Dame de Namur University, have said they won’t enroll any students in the fall.

  • Douglas Webber, a Temple University higher education economist: “I would be shocked if there aren’t a lot of closures within the next 12 months” nationally.

CalMatters virtual events

Today at 4 p.m.: Want to know more about help available to homeowners and renters during the coronavirus pandemic and how to help homeless Californians? Join CalMatters housing reporter Matt Levin as he chats with Lisa Sitkin of the National Housing Law Project, Sasha Harnden of the Western Center for Law and Poverty, and Tomiquia Moss of All Home. Register here and submit questions here.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: COVID-19’s disparate effects are shown in its death toll. New York’s death rate is 25 times as high as California’s. The data also imply that we shouldn’t be pushing Californians to live in high-density housing, give up their cars and ride transit.

Let’s talk taxes: Policymakers must ensure California has a tax system that can withstand downturns like this one, while also generating more stable revenue for public programs and services, argue Erin Heys and Sarah Swanbeck of the Berkeley Institute for Young Americans.

The power of partnerships: Conservation and wildlife organizations are working with farmers, ranchers and other private landowners to improve the health of the environment and protect endangered species, write Carlos Suarez of the California Natural Resources Conservation Service and Paul Souza of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Other things worth your time

Can Tom Steyer win over business groups as co-chair of Newsom’s new economic task force? // Politico

How the discovery that the first coronavirus death was in Santa Clara raises questions about the virus’s spread. // The New York Times

California becomes the first state to make testing available to some residents without COVID-19 symptoms. // The Los Angeles Times

‘What is the state hiding’? ACLU pushes for more details on demographics of coronavirus cases, testing. // The Fresno Bee/CalMatters

Newsom says California hospitals can begin scheduling essential surgeries again, though cosmetic surgery remains off the table for the moment. // The San Francisco Chronicle

California Highway Patrol bans rallies following large protest of shelter-in-place order on Capitol grounds. // The Associated Press

PG&E CEO steps down a little over a year after he was hired to guide the utility through bankruptcy proceedings. // The Sacramento Bee

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See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...