The medical experts have offered their diagnosis: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to reopen the economy on June 15 is reasonable, if a bit of a premature move. The usual suspects — variants, vaccine hesitancy, complacency and rising case counts across the country — all still have time to push back the reopening date.
“It’s okay as an aspirational date,” surmised UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong. “If you look at the numbers in California, they look pretty good. But we need to set expectations that things may change based on the shifting landscape.”
The reopening plan itself is limited to sectors affected by the color-coded tiered system, and the state’s mask mandate will remain in place. But the plan was presented by the politically embattled governor with optimism that life will soon return to something resembling normal.
“In America, we are seeing bright light at the end of the tunnel, and on June 15, all things being equal, continue that good work, we will have moved beyond that blueprint,” Newsom said at a Tuesday press conference. “We will be opening up this economy and business as usual.”
The reopening date is contingent on two factors: Vaccine supply must be sufficient for Californians 16 and older, and hospitalization rates must be stable and low. The state seems on track to reach these conditions, experts said.
The state’s 14-day average for hospitalizations continues to drop, falling from about 22,000 at the peak of the surge to under 3,000 over the last two weeks. That trend should continue, doctors said, as more of the highest-risk people get vaccinated.
It also seems like there should be enough vaccines come June: “The availability of vaccines is going to be a given,” Chin-Hong said. “President Joe Biden has always aimed low with his promises and over-delivered.”
The real question is whether the state will be able to vaccinate about 60 or 70 percent of the population to reach herd immunity, a metric that experts say is a better way to assess if it’s safe enough to reopen.
According to Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of the Covid-19 response for the UCSF Emergency Department, it is unclear whether the younger population will rush to get vaccinated or how many holdouts there will be.
“Making vaccines available does not mean getting people vaccinated if people are resistant,” she said. “If we have a significantly slower uptake of vaccination among people in their twenties, then we could still have a lot of virus in circulation in June, and it wouldn’t be the right time to get rid of our economic restrictions.”
There are also potential complications that could throw off the June 15 reopening date, which experts say the state needs to be ready to adapt to.
“You can make a good argument that we’re heading toward much better days on June 15. You can also make good arguments that we’re not going to get there,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of infectious disease and vaccinology.
Rising cases in other parts of the country and variants are of particular concern. States in the Midwest and Northeast are reporting significant increases in new cases, with Michigan being hit particularly hard, registering case counts on par with its winter surge. Across the country, the number of new cases has climbed by 14 percent over the past two weeks.
Chin-Hong is worried about the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the most common source of new U.S. infections. The variant is about 60 percent more contagious and 70 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus, according to The New York Times. Young adults and children are among those represented in the new cases.
Chin-Hong said that if the variant continues to spread among young people, especially those under 16 who are not yet slated to be vaccinated, it could be difficult to justify a full reopening.
“We still don’t know enough about the absolute risk for those 16 and under,” he said. “All that data is being accrued right now, and it’s a rapidly changing landscape. It’s the most dangerous time right now to be an unvaccinated individual.”
The very public push to reopen the economy could also backfire by changing the way that people behave.
“I’m not happy with this announcement this soon, because people are going to hear what they want to hear, not necessarily what Newsom said,” Swartzberg said. “I’m afraid that’s going to change behavior now, and that’s going to be very problematic for how we deal with the pandemic over the next 10 weeks.”
UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. George Rutherford, on the other hand, is less concerned: “I think we’ve been quite tolerant of wearing masks and maintaining social distance, and I don’t see there being a big change in that, especially now that people understand where our finish line is,” he said.
California is doing well, and all experts said that if current conditions hold, reopening should be in the cards come June 15.
“It’s the right move, it’s a little bit of chance-taking, but I think everything will align,” Rutherford said, “And we should be okay.”