California eyes endemic COVID strategy as mask mandate nears end

Signs requiring the use of masks and other face coverings at Pleasant Hill City Hall at 100 Gregory Lane in Pleasant Hill, Calif. on March 5, 2021. (Samantha Laurey/Bay City News)

California is approaching yet another pandemic inflection point — one that could mark the state’s transition to treating COVID like any other virus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has hinted at a forthcoming “endemic strategy” for dealing with COVID-19 at least twice in the past two weeks. California’s statewide mask mandate is set to expire on Feb. 15 — and given decreasing test positivity rates, cities such as San Francisco relaxing their mask rules and photos of a maskless Newsom at last weekend’s NFC Championship game, state health officials may not be inclined to extend it.

Newsom’s health administration is experiencing changes of its own: California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the state’s top physician, announced late Tuesday that she is resigning Feb. 11 to “focus on prioritizing care for myself and my family.” The surprise departure comes less than two years after California’s public health director resigned amid a tech snafu resulting in a massive undercount of coronavirus cases.

But even as the state considers a shift in COVID policy, a statewide Public Policy Institute of California survey released Wednesday night found the virus continues to be a primary concern for many Californians. Some key takeaways:

  • 67% of Californians say the worst of the pandemic is behind us — a significant decrease from May 2021, when 86% thought so.
  • 42% fear being hospitalized for COVID — a 14-percentage-point increase from May 2021.
  • 19% named COVID-19 as the most important issue for Newsom and state lawmakers to work on in 2022, followed by homelessness at 13% and jobs, the economy and inflation at 12%.
  • 59% approve of how Newsom is handling COVID, a percentage that has stayed more or less consistent since September 2020.

It may not be clear what path California will take post-omicron, but what is clear is that it will be divisive.

The battle over wearing masks in schools is heating up even in regions such as the Bay Area, with some San Francisco physicians circulating a petition calling on Newsom and state leaders to “immediately shift our public dialogue toward defining a path for removing all remaining COVID-19 restrictions in public schools” and others arguing that not worrying about the virus is a luxury few can afford.

Perhaps nowhere is the divide over COVID policies more stark than in Shasta County, where a Republican supervisor who faced a Tuesday recall election for his lackluster opposition to state restrictions appeared likely to be ousted from office — ceding control of the board of supervisors to officials linked to a local militia.

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