California officials unveiled the state’s plan Thursday to combat COVID-19 into the future as the state shifts into a long-term approach to the virus and away from an emergency pandemic response.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly outlined the strategy using the acronym SMARTER, standing for shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and pharmaceutical treatments, which he abbreviated as Rx.
While the ideas of the plan are not entirely new — the state has long urged and, in some cases, required residents to get vaccinated, tested and wear a mask indoors — state officials argue they have the necessary tools to effectively protect the vast majority of state residents from COVID’s worst outcomes.
Ghaly argued that the state will remain ready into the foreseeable future to ensure that local jurisdictions have access to necessities like masks and PCR and rapid testing that help mitigate and monitor the virus’ spread.
The plan sets a number of benchmarks to that effect, including the maintenance of a stockpile of at least 75 million masks and the capacity to perform at least 500,000 tests and administer 200,000 vaccines per day.
“Today is about balance … between a message of hope and successful adaptation, but also prepared vigilance,” Ghaly said. “Today is not about moving on, but rather about moving forward.”
Ghaly suggested that the state will move away from its blanket public health measures like mask mandates as part of the SMARTER plan, arguing that those responsibilities should largely shift to local governments.
He added that previous standardized responses to the virus’ spread across the state will likely be ineffective in the future, as many of the state’s 58 counties will have differing levels of viral transmission at any given time.
“Moving forward, based on the evolving conditions of the virus, we will be prepared to use these different strategies in more precise and targeted ways all along the way, integrating new innovations and information to protect our state,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said in a statement.
The announcement of the SMARTER plan is part of a flurry of activity by state officials in recent weeks to modify health and safety measures as COVID cases and hospitalizations continue their sharp drops from record highs during the omicron surge.
The state lifted its indoor mask requirement Wednesday for vaccinated residents and officials are expected to announce by the end of the month when masking requirements in schools may be relaxed.
Ghaly juxtaposed Thursday’s announcement with the state’s previous major transitions in its pandemic response, noting that there will be no “Pomp and Circumstance” or “triumphant celebration” as there was when the state lifted its tiered reopening system last June.
“We’re gliding into normal, we’re not announcing the normal,” he said, adding that the state will move into the virus’ next phase with “humble confidence.”
Ghaly noted that California will likely still see seasonal COVID surges around the beginning of the academic year and during winter, but said that future COVID-related restrictions are highly unlikely.
“We started with much more restrictive interventions, stay-at-home orders, capacity limitations, but those are years ago from a COVID perspective,” he said. “The hope is that because of our SMARTER approach, because of our ability to see what’s coming, address what’s coming, manage what’s coming, that those are things of the past.”
Health experts across the state lauded the plan, calling it a model for the future of COVID response in other states.
They also argued that California has the lowest per capita COVID death rate in the country due in large part to the public health measures it has implemented and expressed confidence in the state’s future efforts to combat the virus.
“Coming out of the Omicron surge, we have to apply all the lessons we’ve learned in the past two years, to be sure that we’re taking the smartest possible approach to this rapidly evolving threat,” University of California San Francisco Medicine Department Chair Dr. Bob Wachter said. “I was impressed by the SMARTER plan, which does just that.”
Newsom was expected to elaborate further on the SMARTER plan during a briefing Thursday afternoon in San Bernardino County.