Orange County residents can soon expect some changes in the state’s response to the current pandemic, with officials hinting at lifting some restrictions – like masks – but also reinstituting the mandates if case surges happen. 

On Thursday afternoon, Secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said residents can expect tailored responses to future surges and COVID-19 variants. 

“Today’s discussion … marks a moment some say is overdue while others say is premature,” Ghaly said during a Thursday news briefing. 

View the new plan here.

He also said officials aren’t looking at specific virus thresholds that trigger things like mask mandate returns.

“We aren’t announcing thresholds for disease transmissions that trigger this or that. We are announcing what I call response mechanisms,” Ghaly said. 

Although state officials lifted the mask mandate yesterday, it could come back if state public health officials see a new variant or rising case rates.

“These masks will remain a key mitigation strategy,” Ghaly said “With on and off ramps tailored to the unique virus strain we are facing at the time … there may be a time where we all need to wear masks so we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system.” 

“We will be clear on where and when they are required,” he said. 

Ghaly also said the state’s going to stockpile 75 million masks, get 30 million at-home COVID test kits for residents and keep the ability to get at least 3,000 health care workers into the hospital system within two weeks of a virus surge.

While he didn’t offer many specific examples of what Californians can expect with the incoming shift in state strategy, he did say the changes will be announced through plain-language summaries slated to be published online in the coming days. 

“These will be simple one to two-page documents … on the latest requirements about vaccine, testing, masking, isolation and quarantine,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to hold a 3:15 p.m. news conference today in San Bernardino to go over the specifics of the state’s new pandemic response plan, which can be viewed on Youtube.  

The new plan also lays out a change in how state public health officials will monitor future outbreaks and variants. 

“For example, if we have another highly infectious but not as virulent variant in the future, we may focus on hospital numbers to gauge whether and how the state should react. On the other hand, if the virulence is high, we may again make decisions based on case numbers, as preventing a case may mean saving a life,” reads the plan

Meanwhile, Ghaly said the changes will keep health equity as a cornerstone in the pandemic response. 

Communities throughout Anaheim, Garden Grove, Westminster and Santa Ana have been hit hard by the virus. The same working class, often minority communities, also struggled to get vaccines, testing and isolation resources early in the pandemic. 

Those struggles – although not as bad – still continue, say many community leaders and community health clinic workers interviewed by Voice of OC over the past several weeks. 

Orange County’s Latino community still faces a sizable gap in COVID vaccines compared to other ethnic communities. 

[Read: OC’s Latino Community Remains Behind on COVID-19 Vaccines One Year Later]

Following numerous reports of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact to certain communities, county public health officials partnered with Advance OC – a nonprofit health organization – to create a health equity map last year. 

The data map details a wide range of health and social inequities, like rates of chronic disease or access to broadband internet service. 

[Read: Could OC’s New Health Inequity Map Lead to Real Systemic Change?]

The efforts also produced a COVID-19 vulnerability map, which shows certain neighborhoods in Anaheim, Fullerton, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano and Westminster at highest risk of COVID.

Many of those same neighborhoods struggle with chronic health conditions like obesity and heart issues, which COVID can severely impact – leading to hospitalizations and even death. 

“I think we have a strong responsibility in government to look to our most vulnerable communities … and address the immediate concerns of people’s health and wellbeing,” Ghaly said. 

He also said there’s a provision in the proposed state budget that creates an office focused on maintaining and creating more partnerships with community based organizations and the health clinics, which have been critical to soften COVID’s impact on the hard hit communities.

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