California on Monday recorded by far the highest number of Covid-19 deaths it has seen over the course of the pandemic. But the shocking loss of 764 lives may not have been the biggest virus-related news in the state. Nor was the generally better news on Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.
On Friday, the Associated Press published a bombshell story alleging that Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration had been keeping secret the data calculations by which it has justified one of the country’s longest and most stringent lockdowns.
Newsom announced a regional approach to shutdowns as cases spiked after Thanksgiving. It divided the state into five regions and mandated shutdowns if a region’s ICU capacity fell below 15%. Most of the state was quickly judged to be below that threshold.
But that threshold was not as clear as it seemed. Newsom has long said there would be an “equity component” factored into reopenings to account for for how regions did in relation to their traditionally underserved populations.
State health officials factored in not how many ICU beds were available, but how many were actually staffed and available to adults infected with Covid-19 — a good number of ICU beds were NICU, or set up for children.
Adding to the confusion, said the AP report, “the state uses a weighted percentage to determine ICU capacity. COVID-19 patients tend to need longer care, penalizing regions like Southern California that have a higher proportion.”
These factors were made public piecemeal by the administration, adding to the confusion and suspicion already engendered by the chaos of a pandemic.
Asked by Deadline if he was clear how the regional ICU percentages were determined, LA County Chief Science Officer Paul Simon said, “I can’t really comment. I haven’t seen the news. I’m not really sure what considerations were made in that threshold.”
He is not alone.
At the start of last week, no regions appeared unlikely to have the stay-at-home order lifted soon because their capacity was well below 15%. But within a day, the state announced it was lifting the order for the 13-county Greater Sacramento area.
Suddenly, outdoor dining and worship services were OK again, hair and nail salons and other businesses could reopen, and retailers could have more shoppers inside.
Local officials and businesses were caught off guard. State officials did not describe their reasoning other than to say it was based on a projection for ICU capacity.
In fact, on Friday the state’s regional shutdown map listed the Sacramento region at just 9% ICU capacity. It may have fallen since the week before, but how those numbers are arrived at was still a mystery.
That’s confounding, since Newsom has said throughout the pandemic that he was committed to transparency and making decisions based on data.
Even more confounding was the response reportedly given to AP by Department of Public Health spokeswoman Ali Bay. “At the moment the projections are not being shared publicly,” she said in an email.
Kate Folmar, spokesperson for the California Health and Human Services Agency told AP the administration is committed to transparency, providing twice-weekly updates on the regional shutdowns.
For the record, Governor Gavin Newsom has not given one of his pandemic updates. His chief Covid lieutenant, HHS Secretary Mark Ghaly, did take questions from reporters on Tuesday, but that was it. Newsom last answered reporters’ questions at an LA-area Covid event last Friday. There were no major updates given at that event about regional shutdowns.
HHS spokesperson Folmar said the regional projected ICU capacity numbers are based on multiple variables including available beds and staffing that change regularly.
“These fluid, on-the-ground conditions cannot be boiled down to a single data point — and to do so would mislead and create greater uncertainty for Californians,” she said in a statement.