California needs to increase daily coronavirus testing by at least four-fold in order to start lifting stay-at-home orders and re-opening the state’s economy, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.
The state is currently conducting about 16,000 diagnostic tests per day. According to guidelines established by Newsom, that number has to reach 60,000 to 80,000 daily tests in order for him to consider lifting restrictions on daily life.
Newsom announced Wednesday the state will establish over 80 new sites, with priority in underserved areas around the state.
The governor says he anticipates California will reach 25,000 daily tests by the end of April, but resisted predictions about when the state will begin to re-open.
“I wish I could prescribe a specific date,” he said, but “there is no date.”
The health care industry, however, can take one step toward returning to normal. Thanks to relatively flat coronavirus hospitalizations, state officials said Wednesday that hospitals could begin scheduling regular, “essential” surgeries again, such as non-emergency heart procedures, which had been postponed because of the outbreak.
“These are not surgeries that are cosmetic,” Newsom said. “These are important medical procedures that if not attended to could become crises and could ultimately burden the rest of the health care system.”
For weeks, Newsom has pointed to a lack of test swabs and reagents in California and nationally as a hurdle to reaching testing goals. The governor said he spoke Wednesday morning with President Donald Trump, who promised the state at least 100,000 swabs next week and an additional 250,000 the following week, with “substantial” increases in weeks beyond that.
But Newsom cautioned that swabs are not the only hurdle, and that there are other potential bottlenecks in the testing pipeline, including staffing and transporting samples.
Sara Bosse, director of public health in Madera County, says the acquisition of swabs and deployment of new sites will help local governments conduct contact tracing, the process of identifying people who have come in contact with an infected individual. Contact tracing is crucial for containing the spread of a disease.
Many public health labs, including the one in Madera County, have little or no ability to test for the coronavirus, leaving them to depend on outside labs. Bosse says that can result in test results taking three to eight days, depending on where the sample is sent.
More labs, especially if they are established in so-called “testing deserts,” including rural areas, could help reduce that turnaround.
Newsom also announced the state would begin searching for state and county government employees who can transition into contact tracing investigator roles, with the goal of training an “army” of 10,000 workers.
The strategy has shown success on a smaller scale in Madera County. Shortly after the outbreak took hold in California, the county used investigators from the sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office to conduct contact tracing.
“We were able to expand our team from what was essentially two people to several dozen people overnight,” Bosse said.
In addition to ramping up diagnostic testing, the state is also working to secure serological tests, which are used to confirm the presence of antibodies that indicate potential past infection and potential immunity.
According to state Health and Human Services director Mark Ghaly, California expects to receive 1.5 million serological tests from Abbott Laboratories once the product receives authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“We plan to use those first and foremost to understand the prevalence of disease across the state,” Ghaly said.
Coronavius hospitalizations dropped 0.2% and ICU cases were down 1.8% Wednesday, Newsom said. Overall, he said hospitalizations have stabilized, though he noted that could change if Californians do not continue to follow stay-at-home orders.
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