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Why is Gavin Newsom changing California's COVID-19 reopening tiers again?

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 3/5/2021 Sophia Bollag, The Sacramento Bee

Mar. 5—Gov. Gavin Newsom and administration officials provided more detail Thursday to back up their decision to include a vaccine equity metric in business reopening plans, arguing that inoculating the state's most vulnerable residents will accelerate a safe return to normalcy.

On Wednesday evening, Newsom administration officials unveiled a new plan to ensure vaccines reach California's most disadvantaged communities and speed up economic reopening, which drew praise for its focus on equity but criticism for making yet another change to the state's reopening rules.

Under the new plan, the state will target 40% of its vaccine doses to its most disadvantaged neighborhoods, those in the bottom quartile of the "Healthy Places Index," a measure of poverty and other factors including residents' housing status and education level.

Once 2 million people from those communities have been vaccinated, the state will make it easier for counties to move from the most restrictive purple tier into the less restrictive red tier by increasing the number of daily new cases allowed for counties to move tiers.

State officials expect they will reach the 2 million vaccine threshold in one or two weeks, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly told reporters Thursday morning.

The move will be significant for the state's economy because the color-coded tier system determines what types of businesses can be open and what restrictions they must follow. It also dictates school reopenings.

The plan prompted questions from reporters and members of the public about why it made sense to tie reopening decisions to vaccinations and why the framework would apply statewide, instead of at a county level.

Ghaly said the new guidelines focus on the state's most disadvantaged residents because they are the most likely to get sick and become hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Vaccinating those communities will help keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, he said. He also said the administration decided to make the framework statewide to avoid having a patchwork of standards that vary from county to county.

The plan generated some criticism from people involved in negotiations on the new school reopening deal, which aims to pressure schools to resume in-person instruction this month.

Under the new reopening plan, schools in the red tier must open for elementary grades and at least one middle or high school grade by April 1 to receive their full share of state funding.

Newsom and lawmakers finalized negotiations on the school bill over the weekend before the administration altered the tier requirements. The changes announced Wednesday are "kind of not fair" to those who negotiated the deal, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said.

"If we are going to change the tiers and suddenly everyone is in red tier, that changes the classes that have to be open, the number of classes and the testing cadences," the San Diego Democrat said Thursday just before the Legislature voted on the bill. "So, if you get calls from your teachers union a little upset, they have the right to be upset. You don't negotiate a deal and change the parameters of that deal on the day we are voting on it."

Despite the critique, Gonzalez voted with the vast majority of lawmakers to pass the bill. Just four Republicans voted against it. Newsom says he plans to sign it into law Friday.

Joe Boyd, executive director of the California Teachers Association, said he doesn't know what to expect come fall. He said the governor's change to the definition of the red tier makes things more complicated.

"We've changed the meaning of what it means to be in a tier now three times," he said Thursday, speaking on a panel with the Public Policy Institute of California. "At some point, we have to have some consistency of what to expect."

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley, said it's appropriate for the Newsom administration to be constantly updating and improving its response to the coronavirus, so changes to the tier system aren't necessarily bad. But he said he sees a problem with the justification for the change announced this week.

Vaccines should be making the community safer by reducing the rate of coronavirus cases, he said. The faster we vaccinate people, the faster we should be able to reopen the economy as case rates drop.

But he said he doesn't agree with the administration's logic that more vaccines should allow for reopening businesses with higher rates of coronavirus still circulating.

Vaccines make the community safer by reducing the number of cases, he said. They don't necessarily make it safer to live in a community that still has high case rates, he said.

"I'm not sure that completely computes," he said.

Swartzberg said he agrees with the administration's decision to prioritize vaccines for disadvantaged parts of the state. Targeting vaccines to areas where the virus is spreading the most is the most effective way to quell the virus' spread.

"I completely agree with this approach of devoting a large swathe of our vaccine to that population," he said. "It makes not only that population much safer, but all of us much safer."

Ghaly said about 1.6 million doses — 17% of vaccines administered across California — have been given to residents in the lowest quartile of the Healthy Places Index, compared to 34% among residents in the highest quartile.

Many advocates and health experts have praised the Newsom administration's focus on prioritizing disadvantaged communities, which are disproportionately home to Latinos and other people of color.

As the state's largest ethnic group, Latinos make up nearly 40% of the state's population. But the most recent data from California shows they only make up 17% of people who have received their first vaccine does.

Newsom referenced the pandemic's unequal toll on Latino communities during a Thursday press conference.

"It doesn't get as much attention as it deserves," Newsom said. "But when you look today at the total impact of this pandemic over the last year, 55% of those that have tested positive in this state ... happen to be Latino. Forty-six percent of the deaths happen to be Latino."

Ensuring Latinos get more vaccines is a step in the right direction, said Sonja Diaz, director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative.

"Communities of color are keeping the economy afloat, and prioritizing them is not only the right thing to do, but an economic imperative," Diaz said in a written statement. "The state's new approach is the right step to stop the bleeding and affirm that Californians of color are not collateral damage but the catalysts to recovery. California has a responsibility to those communities to get them help first and fast."

The Bee's Michael McGough, Kim Bojórquez, Lara Korte and Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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