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Newsom announces new Covid response plan as California shifts focus to ‘next phase’

<i>Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</i><br/>California Gov. Gavin Newsom on February 17 will unveil his state's plan for the
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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom on February 17 will unveil his state's plan for the "next phase" of the Covid-19 pandemic in San Bernardino County.

By Eric Bradner, Stella Chan, Sara Finch and Paul LeBlanc, CNN

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday unveiled his state’s plan for the “next phase” of the Covid-19 pandemic, which puts a specific focus on learning to live with the coronavirus.

“What we’re announcing here today is about turning a page,” the Democratic governor said in a speech in San Bernardino County on Thursday. “We have all come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis, that there is no end date, that there is not a moment where we declare victory despite so many of the metaphors that were used during this pandemic — the war metaphors where we said, ‘We will defeat this virus.'”

“In that light, we have put together a plan that we coin as the ‘SMARTER’ plan because we are smarter two years later. We are more adaptable. We are more capable to understand the nature of this disease,” Newsom added.

The plan is an acronym for the state’s seven priorities moving forward: Shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and Rx.

The shift in approach comes as the Omicron wave that has slammed the United States this winter recedes — and as other Democratic-led states move to relax restrictions. New York and Rhode Island have dropped their mask mandates in recent days; Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon are set to do so in the coming weeks.

California has long been among the most strict states in imposing Covid-19 health mandates. Newsom was the first governor to implement a statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020. But he and other Democratic governors who have imposed public health measures are adjusting their approaches as Americans willing to tolerate the risks seek a return to normalcy in some ways.

With California’s new plan, Newsom said, “we move out of the pandemic phase and we move into a phase which should allow you confidence that we are not walking away. That we’re taking the lessons learned and were leaning into the future.”

In recent interviews, Newsom had previewed a shift in strategy to treat Covid-19 like any other virus — including lifting the state’s mandate for masks in schools. California’s mask mandate for indoor businesses expired this week, though local governments can still impose their own mandates.

“In that endemic plan, we will be able to answer many questions that many of you have about the world we are living in and where we are going with this virus and where can create criteria as we transition to the endemic phase,” Newsom said last week, previewing the announcement.

He said the plan will take into consideration what did and did not work in the last two years and how to address possible surges and new variants.

The California governor could find himself at odds with Democratic lawmakers who control the state’s legislature and are pushing for strict vaccination requirements. Proposals include one that would require vaccines for all students, except those granted medical exemptions, and allow those 12 and older to get vaccinated without their parents’ consent, and one that would require businesses to require all employees and contractors to be vaccinated.

As Democratic lawmakers consider going further than Newsom has, Republicans have long claimed that his mandates have gone too far — using photos of Newsom hobnobbing maskless at a November 2020 indoor dinner party at The French Laundry restaurant to make their case.

Noting that division Thursday, Newsom acknowledged, “There are those that prefer to walk away, to deny the realities of the last few years, let the virus in all its forms and manifestations continue to take its course. That’s not the approach we’re arguing for. It’s not the approach we’re taking. We are taking a more sensible, and I would argue more sustainable health care approach based on the lessons learned to prepare for the unknown.”

An attempt to recall Newsom last year, with Republican talk radio host Larry Elder emerging as the top candidate to replace him, failed in the overwhelmingly blue state. Newsom won the September recall election, with 62% of California voters saying he should not be removed from office.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Monday that “California’s plan, of course, will talk about data, and data elements and their importance but will largely be focused on how we stay prepared and ready and what Californians should come to expect.”

“I think it’s really important that we not just talk about endemic phase but how do continue to live with a virus that changes and kind of throws curveballs at different times,” Ghaly said, noting the unpredictability of the virus. “So, for California and our future, it is about being ready and being prepared.”

This story has been updated with remarks Thursday from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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