By Kristen Hwang and Ana B. Ibarra
California’s COVID-19 state of emergency will end Feb. 28, 2023, nearly three years from its initiation, officials from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced Tuesday.
The announcement came as new variants spur concerns that there will be another deadly winter surge across the country and as test positivity rates plateau in California following a nearly three-month decline. More than 95,000 Californians have died as a result of COVID-19, according to state data.
The state of emergency gave Newsom broad, often controversial, powers to issue masking and vaccination mandates and temporary stay-at-home orders in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
It also enabled the governor to enter into nearly $12 billion dollars worth of no-bid emergency response contracts with testing facilities, personal protective equipment suppliers and temporary workforce agencies. Some of those contracts were with untested vendors who failed to deliver services.
As of Tuesday, 27 provisions from the 74 executive orders issued under the state of emergency remain in effect, officials said. More than 500 provisions have already ended. The Newsom administration would not allow the press to name the senior officials who participated in an embargoed media briefing about ending the state of emergency.
“The State of Emergency was an effective and necessary tool that we utilized to protect our state, and we wouldn’t have gotten to this point without it,” Newsom said in a statement. “With the operational preparedness that we’ve built up and the measures that we’ll continue to employ moving forward, California is ready to phase out this tool.”
Newsom has extended the state of emergency five times over the course of the pandemic, most recently in June.
The federal government most recently extended its own COVID-19 public health emergency through Jan. 11. Federal officials have said they will give states a 60-day notice before the federal emergency order is lifted. Some pandemic-era expansions and protections that Californians have benefitted from come from the federal order — like expansions in telehealth services and Medi-Cal’s renewal freeze, which has helped keep thousands insured throughout the pandemic.
The duration of the state of emergency has been controversial among state Republican leaders who attempted to overturn the governor’s power during a Senate emergency meeting in March. The resolution to terminate the state of emergency was voted down 8-4, with senators voting along party lines.
At the time, representatives for frontline health workers, including the California Hospital Association, stated flexibilities allowed under the executive orders were critical to expanding capacity. It allowed health care officials to hire thousands of out-of-state workers who typically need to be licensed in California to practice, among other emergency measures.
The state’s early adoption of stay-at-home orders, which lasted on-and-off for 10 months, were successful in delaying spikes in case and hospitalization rates, but the first winter surge in January 2021 saw more than 21,000 hospitalizations at its peak. Since that time, hospitals across the state have repeatedly warned of impending collapse as various waves of the pandemic intensified worker burnout and shortages.
California is currently reporting a 14-day average of 1,854 COVID hospitalizations, two-and-a-half times fewer hospitalizations than the same time last year during the tail end of the delta variant surge.
In February, the administration unveiled the SMARTER plan, its $3.2 billion long-term strategy for combating COVID-19. The strategy outlined preparedness measures such as stockpiling 75 million masks, increasing testing capacity to half a million tests per day and investing in the health care workforce and local community health organizations. The SMARTER plan’s rollout has been a key component in eliminating the need for emergency provisions, officials said.
“The administration has determined that rolling back the remaining 27 executive order provisions will have largely minimal operational impact,” an unnamed official said.
The duration of the state of emergency through the winter months is “no accident,” officials said, emphasizing that it will ensure flexibility through a winter surge. However, hospital association President Carmela Coyle said her organization is “deeply concerned” about the announcement and was not consulted about the end date of the state of emergency.
“It forces California hospitals to scale back on our capacity to care for people at a time of high uncertainty about the future,” Coyle said. “We find ourselves in the month of October as we are approaching the winter months, which typically are challenging because we see more people in need of care for things like the flu, on top of the pandemic. It’s really a bad time to think of scaling back on the capacity we have available.”
Flu season typically lasts until May.
In addition to eliminating workforce flexibility, ending the order will also eliminate hospitals’ “space waivers,” which grant hospitals permission to create temporary additional beds, Coyle said.
Officials emphasized that the state has four months to prepare for the end of the order and any potential changes.
The administration plans on pursuing permanent legislative changes for two temporary provisions allowed under the executive order: allowing nurses to order and administer COVID-19 antiviral treatments like PAXLOVID and allowing laboratory assistants to process COVID-19 tests.
In recent months, as the “crisis” phase of the pandemic petered out, legislators abandoned attempts to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for school children and to allow teenagers to get vaccinated without parental consent. Vaccine and testing requirements for some workers like teachers have also been lifted. A high percentage — 72% — of eligible Californians have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data.
Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita has been outspoken in his criticism of Newsom’s unfettered ability to issue no-bid contracts during the state of emergency, characterizing it as “one-man” rule. In response to the automatic renewal of the state’s controversial $1.7-billion COVID-19 testing contract with Perkin Elmer, Wilk authored a measure requiring no-bid contracts larger than $75 million to undergo legislative review before renewal.
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