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After nearly three years, COVID-19 emergency ends Tuesday. Now what?



First declared on Feb. 14, 2020, San Diego County’s COVID-19 emergency officially ends Tuesday, the same day the statewide proclamation expires.

For the most part, this is a technical formality. It has been a long time since the virus put enough pressure on hospitals, either through the number of patients occupying beds, or by keeping a large percentage of the health care workforce home sick, to truly challenge the system’s ability to respond.

The latest weekly report from the county health department showed 1,816 cases reported last week compared to more than 29,000 the same week last year. That figure is surely skewed by the prevalence of home testing these days. Fewer test results are reported to health departments than was the case 12 months ago.

The formal end of the emergency comes as wastewater coronavirus detections have recently been on the rise, but so far have remained five times lower than the peak seen last winter.

Many of the most controversial edicts to arise from emergency powers granted to leaders have long ago been rescinded or pared back. The state lifted its indoor mask mandate, for example, on Valentine’s Day 2022, and moved away from its tier-based reopening system mid-2021.

Post-emergency masking will, according to the state, continue to be mandated in “high risk” locations such as hospitals and nursing homes. In an emailed statement this week, the California Department of Public Health said that “the masking requirement in health care and long-term care facilities is not dependent on the state of emergency timeline,” but did not say whether current requirements will change soon.

Ramtin Akefi, L, and Sabina Kommu pack up equipment and belongings as they were closing down the COVID vaccination clinic.

Medical technicians Ramtin Akefi, left, and Sabina Kommu pack up equipment and belongings as they close down the COVID-19 vaccination clinic Friday at The Oceanside Living Well Clinic in Oceanside. (Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Masking has long been the central symbol of those who have called the government’s pandemic response overblown, even draconian. For many, then, the end of the emergency is definitely a reason to celebrate.

Amy Reichert, the outspoken leader of ReOpen San Diego, a grassroots group that began demanding the end of the emergency in 2020, noted that even President Joe Biden said in public that the pandemic was over in September 2022.

She pointed to a press conference given by Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 1, 2020, as an example of the long-standing view that the emergency was maintained as much for political expediency as disease control. Toward the end of the governor’s remarks, a Bloomberg News reporter, noting “surprisingly generous unemployment benefits” for laid-off workers and bans on stock buybacks for companies included in the national coronavirus stimulus package, asks whether such moves meant “there’s a new opportunity for progressive steps.”

Newsom’s response, after talking income inequality and insisting that he supports capitalism as a small business owner, was “absolutely, we see this as an opportunity to re-shape the way we do business and the way we govern.”

Widely cited at the time, the answer helped convince some that the emergency declaration was being kept around out of political expediency.

“I agree with Gov. Newsom that the pandemic was exploited for political purposes beyond the scope of the public health crisis presented by COVID-19, and I agree with President Biden that COVID was over long before Feb. 28, 2023,” Reichert said.

“Protecting public health is never about politics and always about protecting people,” Fletcher said in an email. “That was what we did, and we did it better than most.

“It’s also a milestone in how far we’ve come in the fight to protect our residents and uphold the integrity of our medical systems from this deadly virus.”

Those literally responsible for protecting the public health note that the virus is still generating deaths and cases daily and is continuing to mutate in ways that can still produce variants capable of filling emergency rooms and hospital beds.

Read the full article here.