Commentary

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee

By Dianne Feinstein

As California takes its first gradual steps toward eventually reopening the economy, the state is providing an example that others can follow.

The process clearly laid out by Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration is phased, thoughtful and based on science. It’s aimed at getting it right the first time so we can get the economy back on track while preventing a second wave of infections.

Experts agree on key steps that must happen before we fully reopen, but they won’t be easy. They include:

Physical distancing and stay-at-home orders: The first step is continuing to follow the example we set so well in California by adhering to physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.

When six Bay Area counties announced a stay-at-home order on March 16, many criticized the move as excessive. Gov. Newsom took similar heat with his statewide lockdown.

But since then, we’ve seen the value of those early decisions. States that waited weeks to follow suit saw significantly more hospitalizations and deaths.

Even states that enforced stay-at-home orders mere days after California saw a devastating difference. Densely populated states like New York and New Jersey, in particular, had far higher per capita deaths than California.

The lesson: physical distancing practices work. They save lives and they lessen the load on hospitals fearful that an abrupt spike in cases will overwhelm them.

New York provides a dire example. Health workers last month described the state as a medical war zone with hospital beds lining hallways and a hospital morgue overflowing with bodies.

The bottom line is this: No matter how difficult and painful our current situation, we must keep these guidelines in place until the disease is under control.

Implementing testing and contact tracing programs: The second step toward reopening the country involves testing and contact tracing. These aren’t curative, but rather diagnostic tools that will tell us where the disease has spread and help guide reopening decisions.

Josh Bolten, head of the Business Roundtable and former chief of staff to President George W. Bush, said all the CEOs he works with agree that testing is “an absolutely crucial gating element to getting us back and running safely.”

Such extensive testing would let us identify those who have the virus (including individuals not showing symptoms) so they can quickly isolate themselves. This will have the added benefit of reassuring others the spread of coronavirus is being limited.

Testing won’t eradicate the disease and tracing outbreaks won’t lead to a cure, but both are critical to giving consumers confidence that they can safely return to shopping and other activities. Regardless of whether stores and restaurants reopen, consumers won’t patronize them unless they feel confident they won’t get infected.

Los Angeles now offers testing to everyone, regardless of symptoms, age or health history. Hopefully, the entire state and nation can follow suit.

Ramping up manufacturing of equipment and PPE: The third step that needs more work is the manufacture and distribution of life-saving medical equipment. We shouldn’t fully relax physical distancing and other public health measures until our health care system and essential workers have the equipment they need to safely do their jobs.

This should be a two-track process. The first track involves a massive effort to produce personal protective equipment (PPE). These are the N95 masks, gowns, face shields and gloves that frontline workers desperately need.

And it’s not just health care workers: employees at grocery stores and pharmacies, truck drivers, farmworkers and meat processors who keep our food supply stable – those are just a few of the groups that must be included in this wave of PPE.

The second track involves hospital equipment like ventilators and testing supplies. We should also be looking at increasing the inventory of products necessary to distribute a vaccine once it’s developed. We need more equipment and we need it now.

Last month, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena announced the design of a simpler ventilator that can be manufactured more easily and cheaply than current versions. It’s that kind of effort we need more of – this has to be an all-hands-on-deck endeavor.

Accelerating the development of treatments and a vaccine: Finally, the fourth step is focusing the federal government as much as possible on developing medical treatments and a vaccine.

Experts predict that a vaccine for this virus is at least 12 to 18 months away, and possibly even further out. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to stay focused on its development. Whatever federal funding is needed for vaccine research and production should be rapidly approved. Life won’t truly return to normal until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.

In the meantime, we need to continue research on medical treatments. One example that experts say shows promise is blood plasma treatments – transfusing blood laced with antibodies from individuals who have recovered from the virus into current patients. This and other treatments need more testing to determine their effectiveness.

While treating the disease isn’t a long-term solution, treatments will save lives and give the American public another boost of confidence that even if they get infected, they will be able to recover.

None of these four steps will be easy, but all of them are necessary. Without significant progress on each of them, dropping our guard and reopening the country overnight would be dangerous. Let’s stay the course.

Dianne Feinstein is California’s senior United States Senator and the former mayor of San Francisco