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California

How Being ‘Tough on Crime’ Became a Political Liability

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by Jody D. Armour for The Conversation

CALIFORNIA — Kamala Harris recently dropped out of the presidential race after months of attacks from the left for her “tough-on-crime” record as San Francisco’s district attorney and as California’s attorney general.

A few years ago, the idea that being tough on crime would be a liability – not an asset – was unthinkable for both Democrats and Republicans.

Bill Clinton, during the 1992 presidential race, interrupted his campaign so he could return to Arkansas to witness the execution of a mentally disabled man. During Harris’ 2014 reelection campaign for attorney general, she actively sought – and won – the endorsements of more than 50 law enforcement groups en route to a landslide victory.

But something has changed in recent years. Harris’ failure to gain traction as a presidential candidate has coincided with a growing number of “progressive prosecutors.”

In the past, I would have scoffed at the notion of a progressive prosecutor. It would have seemed like a ridiculous oxymoron.

But in one of the most stunning shifts in American politics in recent memory, a wave of elected prosecutors have bucked a decadeslong tough-on-crime approach adopted by both major parties. These prosecutors are refusing to send low-level, non-violent offenders to prison, diverting defendants into treatment programs, working to eradicate the death penalty and reversing wrongful convictions.

The unchecked power of prosecutors

In 1968, when I was 8 years old, my father was sentenced to 22 to 55 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for the possession and sale of marijuana. During the trial, the district attorney had repeatedly assured the jurors that he hadn’t promised the state’s principal witness – then serving a long sentence – leniency in return for testifying against my father.

In truth, they had struck that very bargain. After studying the warden’s own law books, my father appealed the conviction, representing himself. He was ultimately vindicated by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after proving that the district attorney had deliberately lied to the jury.

That was in 1974. I went on to become a lawyer and law professor. During the years I spent teaching and studying the relationship between race and the law, the prison population exploded, and my distrust toward government prosecutors only deepened. Too often, it seemed like they were bringing excessively punitive charges in order to force defendants into plea deals. Too often, their approach seemed to reflect a longing for retribution and revenge rather than rehabilitation.

In 2017, law professor John Pfaff was able to show that mass incarceration was due, first and foremost, to the nearly unchecked power of district attorneys.

With reported crimes and arrests steadily declining in the 1990s and 2000s, you might have expected incarceration rates to also fall. Instead, they soared. Pfaff traces this perplexing trend to one key statistic: Between 1994 and 2008, the probability that a district attorney would file a felony charge against someone who’s been arrested roughly doubled, from about 1 in 3 to nearly 2 in 3.

To some voters, the Democratic Party’s approach to criminal justice under Bill Clinton hasn’t aged well. Current Affairs

More than stiff drug laws, punitive judges, overzealous cops or private prisons, prosecutors had been the main drivers of a prison population that had quadrupled since the mid-1980s.

Meanwhile, black Americans continued to be disproportionately incarcerated. In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – nearly six times the incarceration rate for whites and nearly double the rate for Hispanics.

This prosecutorial approach wasn’t punished at the ballot box; instead, racking up convictions and plea deals seemed to bolster the political careers of district attorneys.

The new sheriffs in town

No longer.

Since 2013, roughly 30 reform-minded prosecutors have been elected. A few now preside over prosecutorial staffs in some of the nation’s biggest cities, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Boston’s Rachael Rollins. But they also include chief prosecutors of smaller municipalities, like Satana Deberry, who was elected district attorney of Durham County, North Carolina, in 2018, and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the commonwealth’s attorney of Arlington County, Virginia, who won on a platform of ending mass incarceration in 2019.

Satana Deberry won her district attorney race in 2018 by campaigning on ending cash bail. Satana Deberry

These prosecutors are reinventing the role of the modern district attorney. Krasner, for example, campaigned on eliminating cash bail, reining in police misconduct and upending a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately imprisons people of color. He won with nearly 75% of the vote in the general election.

In 2018, before a packed lecture hall, Krasner told my law students that ending racialized mass incarceration is “the most important civil rights issue of our time.” He pointed out that the key difference between a traditional prosecutor and progressive one is that the latter is a “prosecutor with compassion” and “a public defender with power.”

This growing crop of “prosecutors with compassion” and “public defenders with power” has upended my own binary way of thinking about the role of the district attorney.

I’ve realized that a district attorney can adopt a fundamentally different moral compass and conception of justice. While traditional “law and order” prosecutors possess a moral, legal and political compass that sharply distinguishes between victims and perpetrators, I’d argue that truly progressive prosecutors recognize that “hurt people hurt people” and refuse to subordinate the values of restoration, rehabilitation and redemption to those of retribution, retaliation and revenge.

These two sets of values can collide. Many entrenched judges, prosecutors, police chiefs, police unions and legislators have loudly opposed – or have actively resisted – this shift to restoration and redemption.

Progressive prosecutors, according to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, are “undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.” In a December rally, President Trump singled out Krasner, calling him “the worst district attorney,” one who “lets killers out almost immediately.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has drawn the ire of President Trump. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The experience of Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, is a classic example of the obstacles these new prosecutors can face. After being elected in 2016, she announced that she would no longer seek the death penalty for any defendants tried by her office. Florida Gov. Rick Scott responded by reassigning 24 aggravated murder cases to another state attorney who was amenable to the death penalty.

Ayala sued to have the cases returned to her jurisdiction. She lost.

What changed?

Nonetheless, progressive prosecutors would have never attained power in the first place if their views didn’t resonate with voters.

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” deserves some credit for changing the way activists thought about crime and punishment. Alexander cast mass incarceration as a civil rights crisis by showing that people didn’t simply end up in jail because they were bad people who made poor choices. Nor did prison populations explode simply because there were more crimes being committed. Instead, mass incarceration was closely intertwined with race, poverty and government policy.

Among civil rights activists, issues like affirmative action in higher education had been consuming a lot of time, energy and resources. Alexander’s book helped redirect attention to racialized mass incarceration as a main battlefront in U.S. race relations.

Since its formation in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of their activism. In Los Angeles, for example, the local chapter has led weekly demonstrations for over two years in front of the Hall of Justice. They’re protesting Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey for failing to adequately address police misconduct.

Protesters gather outside the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles in May 2018. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Lacey, who is up for reelection, faces two opponents. Both of them – former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former public defender Rachel Rossi – are running on progressive platforms.

In March, we’ll see if the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office – the nation’s largest county-wide prosecutorial agency – will be the latest to join the progressive prosecutor movement.

Jody D. Armour is Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law, University of Southern California .

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

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California

COVID-19 and California’s Housing Crisis: Issues to Watch

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A hand-sanitizing station at a homeless encampment near Oakland city hall. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters View Comments

by Matt Levin for CalMatters

CALIFORNIA — As the pandemic forces millions of Californians to adjust to a new reality, the words “housing crisis” provoke previously unthinkable questions: How to shelter in place without a home?

How to self-isolate in an overcrowded apartment? Less than two weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom and California lawmakers were in the throes of tackling the twin issues voters considered the state’s most urgent concerns: the more than 150,000 Californians without a home and the state’s sky-high housing costs.

Legislators were introducing controversial bills to make it easier for developers to build more housing, hoping to ease the crippling shortage economists say have made rents and home prices among the most expensive in the country.

Newsom and local governments were about to square off over how to spend $1 billion in proposed help for the unhoused.

That feels like eons ago. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces millions of Californians to adjust to a new reality, the state’s “housing crisis” already means something different, provoking previously unthinkable questions: 

How do you shelter in place without a home? How do you self-isolate in an overcrowded apartment? How far would a $1,000 stimulus check from the federal government go toward my rent or mortgage payment? 

Here are five rapidly evolving housing issues to watch in the next few weeks, months and, yes, years. 

Issue 1: The state’s housing crisis makes it harder to respond to COVID-19

First, there’s the obvious: how to protect the more than 150,000 homeless Californians from contracting and spreading the virus. 

It’s worth reiterating here that the counts you’re hearing from state officials — 108,000 people sleeping outdoors, 43,000 in shelters — are major underestimates. Not only are those numbers more than a year old, but counting the homeless is an inherently unscientific and imprecise snapshot in time. That means more emergency housing units, money and supplies will be needed than what the official stats might indicate.  

It’s also worth reiterating that other states don’t have to worry as much about this vulnerable population as California, which has the highest number of homeless residents in the country and by far the most living outdoors. Many of those homeless are seniors who have chronic health conditions and are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. 

But there are other dimensions of the housing crisis that are making it tougher for public health authorities here to manage the pandemic. Mostly because it’s so expensive to live here, California is the worst state in the country when it comes to overcrowded housing. 

That presents complications for millions of Californians instructed to stay indoors, especially if a household member is showing symptoms of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that someone who is symptomatic should self-isolate in a “sick room” with a separate bathroom. That may not be an option. 

While the virus presents the most pressing public health risk, researchers are also concerned about the long-term physical and health effects of overcrowding if schools and workplaces remain closed for extended periods. 

“On a daily basis, people are experiencing the crowdedness of their homes for longer periods of time throughout the day,’ said Claudia Solari, who researches housing overcrowding at the Urban Institute. “That kind of longer exposure could be a problem.” 

Solari’s research finds overcrowding can be linked to physical and behavioral problems in children. 

Issue 2: Housing the unhoused amid a pandemic takes an extraordinary — and extraordinarily complicated — effort 

Newsom and local governments have announced unprecedented efforts to get people living outside to move indoors. 

The state released $100 million to local governments for emergency shelter housing, with more likely on the way; purchased more than 1,300 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to isolate homeless people who are symptomatic; and offered to negotiate leases with more 950 hotels on behalf of counties to get more people off the streets. Two hotels have already been secured in Oakland, providing 393 rooms.

The city of Los Angeles, with the largest homeless population in the state, announced today it would convert 42 city recreation centers to emergency shelters to create 6,000 new beds. 

But as sweeping as many of these actions have been, including many long sought by advocates, the task ahead is daunting and raises tough questions for public health experts and providers of services for the homeless.

“Health and healthcare are impossible to do with homelessness, they’re incompatible,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, a UCSF homelessness researcher.

Kushel points to several difficult-to-manage scenarios that may play out in coming weeks: How to discharge someone from a hospital if they don’t have a home in which to self-isolate? How to immediately house people with substance-abuse disorders without risking their health (an alcoholic could die if immediately cut off from alcohol, for example)? What to do with an encampment if someone starts coughing and running a fever? 

That last question could be especially problematic. Kushel pushes back against the notion that large-scale sweeps may be necessary, arguing that dispersing an encampment would be an even larger public health risk. But she worries that contagion could be a pretext for governments to sweep people off the streets, especially for the Trump administration, which has threatened such action before. 

State models show that 60,000 people who are homeless could be infected by the virus, with up to 20% needing hospitalization. 

Issue 3: Renters and mortgage-holders need lots of help

“I think it’s a huge number,”said Carol Galante, director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. 

Galante was a high-ranking official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2009 to 2014, as the Obama administration wrestled with the Great Recession. 

Galante said she could easily see this crisis become worse for renters and homeowners with mortgages unless bolder action is taken by the federal and state governments — especially for Californians. 

One simple example: the $1,000 stimulus check some federal lawmakers are pushing for all Americans. That could pretty much cover your rent for the average one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix or Dallas or Atlanta. It would cover less than half of what a one-bedroom costs in San Francisco. 

“I keep thinking of all the people whose incomes have just gone to zero,” said Galante. “Hairdressers, waiters, waitresses — they can’t pay their rent.” 

Newsom has received a flood of criticism from tenant-rights groups for not doing enough to prevent evictions in the wake of the pandemic. An executive order the governor issued this week simply allows local governments to impose an eviction moratorium — if they want to. In places that have imposed a moratorium, renters would have to demonstrate financial harm from the coronavirus crisis to avoid eviction. 

The Trump administration announced a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for federally backed mortgages on single-family homes. That would not apply to the vast majority of renters. 

Issue 4: Rents and home prices may dip, but that’s not necessarily good news 

Economists are saying the country is likely already in recession, and only the depth and breadth of a downturn are uncertain at this point. The worst-case scenarios — 20% unemployment, widespread layoffs over a prolonged period — are terrifying. Early indications are that jobless claims are reaching record levels already. 

In most recessions, home prices and rents decline alongside falling incomes and wages. If a COVID-19-induced downturn is brief and the economy rebounds like President Trump has predicted, rents and home prices might only dip temporarily. But the possibility of a prolonged drop in housing costs is real. 

Some might see a paradoxical benefit for Californians. Wasn’t the root of the “housing crisis” the fact that rents were too damn high? If housing prices drop, won’t more people be able to buy a house?  

Not really. 

A rapid decline in rents and home values might be beneficial to Californians who can keep steady incomes and stable jobs. But for lower-income earners, especially in the service sector, rents will not drop as fast as their incomes. The state will be more unaffordable, not less. 

Issue 5: If momentum for new home building dries up, trouble lies ahead

If California does enter a prolonged recession, its political leaders may want to look back to the 2010’s for a lesson in what policymakers shouldn’t do. 

While the rest of the economy picked up steam after the Great Recession, homebuilding did not — particularly in places like the Bay Area, which saw an explosion in high-wage jobs. Meanwhile, the state only incrementally replaced funding for government-subsidized low-income housing programs it had slashed during the downturn. 

The result? The housing crisis we were living in before COVID-19 hit: sky-high rents, declining homeownership, widespread gentrification and displacement and rising homelessness. 

Galante, the former HUD official, fears that policymakers may make the same mistakes, just as things like affordable housing funding and zoning reform were finally at the top of the agenda. 

“I think we need to be preparing and thinking about that recovery today, and part of that means doing the hard things,” she said. 

Those hard things? Spending more on low-income housing even if state coffers start to bleed, and reducing the regulations developers face when trying to build. 

Matt Levin is the data and housing writer for CALmatters. His work entails distilling complex policy topics into easily digestible charts.

This article is produced as part of WeHo Daily’s partnership with CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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California

Half of Californians Could get Coronavirus, Newsom Warns Trump

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The USNS Mercy, a Navy hospital ship is seen docked at Naval Base San Diego Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in San Diego.

by Judy Linn for CalMatters

In a dramatic and unprecedented move, California issued a mandatory, statewide shelter-in-place order on Thursday after Gov. Gavin Newsom warned 56% of Californians — 25.5 million people — could be infected with coronavirus in the next two months.

The governor’s executive order means the most populous state in the nation will effectively shut down non-essential services — altering daily life for 40 million residents for the indefinite future. It allows Californians to continue to go outside to get food or medicine, to walk their dogs, to care for relatives and friends, to get health care, but generally, the directive is to stay at home. 

LET’S NOT REGRET. LET’S NOT DREAM OF REGRETTING, GO BACK AND SAY, ‘WELL, YOU KNOW WHAT, WE COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA.’ NOT WHEN THE DATA ALL POINTS TO WHERE I THINK MOST OF US KNOW WE’RE GOING.” — GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM

The order is legally enforceable, meaning disobeying can result in a misdemeanor with up to $1,000 in fines or six months imprisonment, although Newsom said social pressures will likely be enough to encourage people not to gather in the middle of a public health crisis.

Newsom said he made the difficult decision based on modeling by state health officers and new data related to infection rates in the state. Similar shelter-in-place directives were already being used by a number of Northern California counties and the governor had previously asked seniors to stay home, but Thursday’s action now applies to everyone.

“Let’s bend the curve together,” the governor said in a livestream, referring to the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 to prevent health facilities from being overwhelmed by patients. “Let’s not regret. Let’s not dream of regretting, go back and say, ‘Well, you know what, we coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ Not when the data all points to where I think most of us know we’re going.” 

The directive was the culmination of swiftly escalating restriction in the face of an even more swiftly escalating peril. In just two weeks, Californians saw social gatherings limited first to 250 people, then only to the young and healthy, then locally outlawed in the Bay Area and some other counties. Sports events were canceled. Disneyland shut down for only the third time in history. Then millions of students were sent home from schools and colleges. Bars were told to issue their last call and restaurant seats emptied out. 

It is unclear for the moment when normalcy will return, and Newsom’s executive order was much broader than many of shelter-in-place orders imposed earlier in the week by some cities and counties. What will remain open are the bare essentials: gas stations, pharmacies, grocery stores, banks and laundromats. Restaurants can offer take-out and delivery. About 500 members of the National Guard will be deployed for humanitarian work to help distribute food.

The governor said social media companies such as NextDoor will begin to provide informational kits to check in on neighbors and loved ones. AmeriCorps and the California Conservation Corps will also ramp up outreach to fight isolation, he said.

“One-pagers so you know what kinds of things you need at home to protect yourself, those that are socially isolated, our seniors struggling with loneliness, as much or more than anything else to make sure we reach out, maybe call five people a day, just check in on them,” Newsom said.  

Newsom said his decision wasn’t made lightly. Rather, it came after weeks of effort in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to model the spread of the novel coronavirus in California, according to Health & Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly. 

“And we are very glad we had built that model,” Ghaly said. “It’s put us in a great position with our partners across the state to be prepared for what we are starting to see, which are hospitals with many patients, and patients who are in the ICU and having outcomes that we’ve seen in other countries.” 

Earlier in the day, the governor said he had warned President Donald Trump that more than half of Californians — 25.5 million people — could be infected with coronavirus over the next two months as he sought at least $1 billion in federal aid from congressional leaders.

“If we change our behaviors, that inventory will come down,” Newsom said. “If we meet this moment, we can truly bend the curve to reduce the need to surge, to reduce the need to have to go out and to cobble all those assets together.”

In a letter dated Wednesday, California’s governor requested White House assistance to deploy the USNS Mercy hospital ship to Los Angeles as health officials project the state will fall short of hospital beds needed to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases. In the last 24 hours, the state reported 126 new cases, a 21% increase, and the rate is doubling every four days in some areas. 

“We project that roughly 56 percent of our population — 25.5 million people — will be infected with the virus over an eight week period,” Newsom wrote. 

Newsom also sent a separate letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives seeking at least $1 billion in federal funds to support California’s response to the pandemic. The money, he said, is needed to purchase and set up health care facilities that the state projects it will need to treat a flood of patients. This includes using state-run hospitals, mobile hospitals and retrofitting hotels and motels.

The governor also asked for additional congressional support to help families and low-income households cope with the crisis by extending unemployment insurance, increase reimbursement for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, suspend work requirements for food stamps as families go hungry and allocate more funding for nutrition programs for children and seniors. 

Newsom also called for loans for small businesses and technology and broadband funding for school districts with high concentrations of families in poverty as schools scramble to adapt to online learning or studying at home.  

State health officials estimate that California hospitals have the capacity to handle a surge of about 10,000 people. However, some models project the state could need twice that, closer to 20,000 extra hospital beds. 

He announced a series of steps being taken to bridge that gap. They include ramping up hospital beds by leasing motels and hotels, borrowing university dorms, staving off hospital closures and asking the federal government for two mobile hospitals in addition to the naval hospital ship.

He announced Seton Medical Center in Daly City, which had been slated for closure by Verity Health Systems, would continue operating and said a second hospital in Southern California would be named on Friday.    

While government officials are conferring with pharmaceutical companies such as Gilead in seeking treatments, Newsom said he “was pleased” to see Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk tweet about the possibility of producing ventilators. Musk said Tesla’s cars contain sophisticated ventilation systems and SpaceX, his spaceflight company, makes life support systems.

“Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly,” Musk replied.

In Newsom’s letter to the president, the governor asked that the naval hospital ship be deployed to Los Angeles because it will free up beds at existing hospitals and health facilities to respond to acute care needs, such as heart attacks and strokes or car accidents. 

Newsom sought to strike a chord with the president’s hometown.

“The population density in the Los Angeles Region is similar to New York City, (and) will be disproportionately impacted by the number of COVID-19 cases,” Newsom wrote.

Judy Linn covers state finances, workforce and economic issues for CalMatters. CalMatters reporter Rachel Becker contributed to this report.

This article is produced as part of WeHo Daily’s partnership with CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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California

Ask an Expert: Are California’s Coronavirus Projections Solid?

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Kaiser Permanente Registered Nurse Rosa Aceves conducts a COVID-19 test at a drive up testing location at the Kaiser Permanente Fremont Medical Center in Fremont on March 11, 2020. Photo by Doug Oakley courtesy of Kaiser Permanente View Comments

by Rachel Becker for CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said more than half the state could become infected by the novel coronavirus. To make sense of the state’s numbers, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker spoke with Lee Riley, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and chair of the division of infectious diseases and vaccinology.

State models project that more than half of the state could become infected with the novel coronavirus over the next two months, a threat to 22.5 million people that has prompted a statewide order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to shelter in place except for essential activities.

coronavirus epidemiologist Lee Riley
Lee Riley, professor of infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health

The California Department of Public Health reports that California’s case count has climbed, as of Saturday, to 1,223 confirmed cases and 23 deaths — certainly an underestimate because of limited testing. Reports from across the state indicate that tests are being reserved for the sickest and most vulnerable because of a shortage in testing supplies that followed a slow federal rollout of tests hampered by technical flaws. 

So far, about 25,200 tests have been conducted in California’s commercial, private, and public health laboratories. But nearly 12,700 of those results are still pending — leaving California in a data limbo, without a clear sense for how the epidemic is evolving. 

CalMatters spoke with Lee Riley, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and chair of the division of infectious diseases and vaccinology, to make sense of the numbers. 

Why is the novel coronavirus spreading so far, and so fast? 

We don’t really know why this is happening. But one of the observations being made in China, where they have a lot of experiences now, is that the virus seems to be able to transmit even before someone becomes symptomatic

And then even after an infected person recovers from the illness, they continue to shed the virus up to two weeks to even 20 days. So there’s more opportunity for an infected person to transmit. That’s why I think so many other people get infected — because there’s many more days of infectious period for a person to contract the virus. That may be one of the reasons that it’s spreading so quickly.

I don’t have enough information about the source of the data that the governor is using to make any real comments. It’s not disclosed how those numbers were derived. The projection was probably made on not having the control measures that we currently have [such as Thursday’s shelter in place order]. If we didn’t do anything, then yes, certainly, we could have millions of people getting infected.

But we are doing things. And, I don’t know how people are behaving, but the fact that we’re not seeing the explosive increase in the number of deaths tells me that, number one, the healthcare providers are really doing a good job preventing deaths, and that measures that are being taken right now are working, at some level. 

“THE VIRUS SEEMS TO BE ABLE TO TRANSMIT EVEN BEFORE SOMEONE BECOMES SYMPTOMATIC. AND THEN EVEN AFTER AN INFECTED PERSON RECOVERS FROM THE ILLNESS, THEY CONTINUE TO SHED THE VIRUS UP TO TWO WEEKS TO EVEN 20 DAYS.”

How are the testing delays and shortages affecting those numbers?

One caveat is that these numbers that we’re getting may be somewhat delayed because as you know, the testing is increasing in number, and so there’s a real backlog of the tests. We don’t really know exactly what’s happening now. The numbers that we’re seeing are based on the tests that were done several days ago, and they’re just coming up because [at] a lot of the testing services, there’s a huge backlog right now. 

We don’t know which direction this is going to go. We may see a continued increase, a huge bump in the next several days, but that just means the results are just coming in. 

The governor’s projections that 56% of Californians might become infected, and that 20% might get sick enough to require hospitalization — can you put those numbers into context? Have we ever seen anything like it before?

If that’s true, that would be unprecedented. We always talk about the 1918 influenza epidemic, right? Even compared to that, this would be far greater in terms of the number. Mind you, when we talk about this level of infection, that doesn’t mean that all those people are going to have severe disease. 

The governor’s estimates are that maybe 20% will have disease severe enough to need hospitalization. That would still be a lot of hospitalizations, and that would overwhelm the healthcare infrastructure in California. 

What do you think of the state’s shelter in place directive — can it slow the spread of the epidemic? 

I think so. That is really, probably, the best strategy at this point, short of vaccines or other modalities. That’s what we really need to be doing. 

In Wuhan, in the province of Hubei, which is a large province in China with more people than California, they certainly didn’t have millions of infected people. The epidemic was put under control in about three months. So if we compare what happened in China to what’s happening in California, there’s a huge difference in terms of the projections that have been made. 

Although, one thing that should be stressed is that in China they had much more draconian control measures. They not only restricted international travel — people coming in to China or going out — but also intra-country travel. And so that may have also helped. The U.S. is a big country, and so far, and the U.S. hasn’t restricted intra-country travel, and even within California, we’re not really restricting travel between cities — although that’s probably going to happen anyways because people are being asked to stay in their homes. 

What do you think the future holds?

At some point, we need to start thinking about what we are going to do next year. Is the same thing going to happen again next year? If so, are we going to keep doing the same every year? We don’t know, and I think that’s important. More research needs to be done to really understand about the structure of this virus to see if this is a virus that’s going to become seasonal, or endemic [meaning it’s always around], or disappear, like the first SARS. So those are some of the issues we really need to start thinking about, and start planning for next year, and be prepared for next year. 


Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research.

This article is produced as part of WeHo Daily’s partnership with CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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