For the past week or two, I’ve been wondering when or if another major lockdown would come amid a frightening increase in coronavirus cases. So Monday morning, I called Dr. Bob Wachter, professor and director of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine, to see if it would be warranted.
[Read about California’s move to “pull the emergency brake” on reopening.]
By the end of the day, those questions had been answered: Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a major cancellation of the reopening – a move Dr Wachter told me he considered a reasonable step.
But it was a move in general efforts to prevent what officials have been warning for weeks could be a disastrous holiday season.
I asked Dr Wachter what he was thinking now. Here are excerpts from our conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity:
First off, tell me about what you are following more closely in California.
The state of the pandemic is simply terrible across the country. But then you have this news on vaccines, which is incredibly encouraging. I think the human brain struggles to reconcile these two data streams.
The vaccine news over the past two weeks has really changed my thinking next year, but we have to get through next year.
Things are worse than I think I and others predicted. California is at the start of a wave, but it’s different from June, in that it’s much more national and distributed than previous surges.
[Track Covid case counts, deaths and hospitalizations across California.]
How much do you think we’ve learned about things like eating inside versus outside since the start of the pandemic? And have we learned enough to allow restaurants to operate safely indoors?
We are much smarter than 10 months ago. We know some things are riskier than we thought and some things are less risky than we thought – not many people are probably cleaning their mail.
We know being outdoors and ventilation are extremely important. And poorly ventilated spaces, where people spend time without masks, are all the bad things in one.
The emerging contact tracing data supports the premise that when you start to see exponential spread, what probably happens is people spend more time indoors, in spaces without masks. Restaurants, by definition, fit this description, Unfortunately.
Does that mean we’ll never come back until we’re all vaccinated? I do not think so. But we will certainly never go back to the crowded restaurants.
[Read more about why Covid hits already vulnerable communities hardest.]
California is in a very different place from the last time we spoke at length in terms of testing. How do you think about it now?
Testing is really complicated in all kinds of dimensions.
That’s part of why the CDC’s failure during this time is so infuriating, as part of a vigorous federal response would have been to increase testing capacity and then create clear guidelines for different situations. Otherwise, we all improvise.
In a different world, you can imagine the widespread availability of quick 15-minute rotation tests that people spend before going to work to make sure everyone in the workplace that day is not. contagious. And if they are, they go home. If they can’t afford to stay in isolation, the company says it’s worth using some common money to make sure they have a place to stay so they don’t go infecting them. a bunch of other people. It would have been a reasonable and rational response to that. Of course, we haven’t seen any of this.
Testing and then sorting out the related contact tracing question are systems that can be an important part of the answer, but not all. Both tend to fall apart when you need them most.
You can have a contact tracking and testing program that works reasonably well when your case volume is low. People can take a test quickly and get it back. It’s a bit like hospitalizations, in that they are systems that need to be designed and put in place not for a good day, but for a bad day.
Once these systems are overwhelmed, everything gets worse very quickly. Knock on wood, we haven’t seen this in California yet, but we’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.
Are you worried about Thanksgiving?
I am extremely worried. We couldn’t be more badly positioned and the timing is just terrible.
In California, things may be a little better. But if you wanted to design something to make matters worse, you would have designed Thanksgiving exactly when it arrives.
But I see this in light of the vaccine news, which I believe is now somewhere between likely and very likely that by Thanksgiving, life will be pretty close to being back to normal.
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The county is also tightening other restrictions, reducing the capacity of indoor businesses and capping the number of people at outdoor gatherings to 15 for up to three households. [Los Angeles County Public Health]
Here’s what else to know today
Learn more about how the health of the river affects the health of tribal communities in the region. [The New York Times]
And read how this year’s catastrophic fire season forced officials to finally turn to Native American ecological expertise. [The New York Times]
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. plans to mainstream the fight against climate change into all federal agencies and programs. His the best candidate to lead the EPA is Mary D. Nichols, California’s renowned regulator for climate and clean air. [The New York Times]
Michael Tubbs, the youngest and first black man to be elected mayor of Stockton, conceded to Kevin Lincoln, pastor and businessman: “He will need all of our support.” [The Stockton Record]
Learn about Mr. Tubbs’ efforts to promote a universal basic income. [The New York Times]
If you need a little pick-me-up or some advice for your next virtual anecdote, here’s some news that can serve both: Dolly Parton – yes, that one – has been credited with making the development of a promising coronavirus vaccine in the form of a donation to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Is this news related to California? Not strictly speaking – except in the sense that Ms. Parton is a hero to all Americans.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. PT on weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Have you been forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read each edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from UC Berkeley and has reported statewide, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she always wants to see more. Follow us here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley.