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The Inside Story Of How The Bay Area Got Ahead Of The COVID-19 Crisis

Sunday was presupposed to be a uncommon break day for Dr. Tomás Aragón after weeks of working around-the-clock.

Instead, the San Francisco public well being officer was jolted awake by an pressing 7:39 a.m. textual content message from his boss.

“Can you set up a call with San Mateo and Santa Clara health officers this a.m., so we can discuss us all getting on the same page this week with aggressive actions, thanks,” stated the message from Dr. Grant Colfax, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health.

“Will do, getting up now,” Aragón responded.

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It was March 15, two days earlier than St. Patrick’s Day, a heavy partying vacation and nightmare state of affairs for public well being officers.

The novel coronavirus was spreading stealthily throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and public well being officers have been alarmed by the explosion of deaths in Italy and elsewhere across the globe. Silicon Valley can be subsequent, case counts indicated.

Until then, that they had primarily centered on banning mass gatherings. But they knew extra needed to be accomplished — and needed to current a united entrance.

Within a number of hours of the textual content, Bay Area public well being leaders jumped on a collection of calls to debate choices, together with essentially the most dramatic — a lockdown order that might shutter companies, isolate households and pressure hundreds of thousands of residents to remain residence.

They determined that they had no alternative. And they have been in a position to transfer swiftly as a result of that they had a secret weapon: a decades-long alliance seeded within the early days of the AIDS epidemic that shields them from political blowback when they should make tough choices.

Together, they might concern the nation’s first stay-at-home order, possible saving hundreds of lives and charting the course for a lot of the nation. Three days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom adopted together with his personal order for California. New York got here subsequent, as have dozens of states since.

“This was one exhausting and difficult day for all of us,” Aragón later wrote in his journal. “We all wish we did not have to do this.”

Now, officers nationwide are weighing how you can raise isolation orders as the speed of COVID-19 transmission slows — and protests towards the orders mount. The Bay Area is once more poised to steer, however with a warning: All of this might be for naught if it isn’t accomplished proper.


The coalition of county public well being officers didn’t got down to lock down the Bay Area that fateful Sunday morning in mid-March. But as they mentioned the exponential enhance in Santa Clara County instances, the place the hospitals have been turning into overwhelmed by contaminated sufferers falling ever sicker, what they wanted to do “started to crystalize,” stated Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s public well being officer.

“It felt huge to me,” she recalled, “because I knew how disruptive it would be.”

Elsewhere within the area, identified instances have been sparse. But a long time of expertise had proven the well being officers that whereas they symbolize completely different jurisdictions, they’re one area relating to infectious ailments. “We knew that it would be a matter of time before that was our experience,” stated Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public well being officer, who contracted COVID-19 days later.

Cody informed her colleagues that Italy was beneath siege, and her county was simply two weeks away from an analogous destiny. If she might have locked down sooner, she informed them, she would have.

“That was compelling,” stated Dr. Lisa Hernandez, the general public well being officer for the town of Berkeley, which had not but recorded any instances of group transmission. “We knew there was going to be St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations, so the timing was critical.”

Dr. Scott Morrow, California’s longest-serving public well being officer, who heads operations in San Mateo County, stated he additionally felt the urgency. “We thought, ‘Yes, the clock is ticking,’” he recalled.

County well being officers in California have immense energy to behave independently within the curiosity of public well being, together with the authority to concern legally binding directives. They don’t want permission from the governor or mayors or county supervisors to behave.

Even for this group, although, with all its collective power, telling hundreds of thousands of Californians to shelter in place appeared dangerous at first. But the well being officers concerned had grown to belief each other, even when they don’t at all times see eye to eye.

For occasion, they at the moment disagree on whether or not to require residents to put on face coverings. Some counties, together with San Francisco and Marin, are requiring them in public, whereas others, like Santa Clara, aren’t.

On the primary Sunday morning name, Aragón floated the thought of creating a coordinated suggestion that Bay Area residents keep at residence. By the subsequent confab, Cody, Santa Clara County’s well being official, made the case that for social distancing to work, it needed to be an order.

“Sara Cody was the courageous leader!” Aragón later wrote in his journal.

So forceful a transfer will be unpopular, however proof exhibits it may also be the simplest, within the absence of remedy or a vaccine. “Here’s the rub on these methods — they only work if you do it really early,” stated Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian on the University of Michigan and an knowledgeable on the 1918 flu pandemic.

“When you do a quarantine, you stop the commerce, you stop the flow of money,” he stated. “But on the other side of that are those whose lives are saved.”


This isn’t the group’s first pandemic. The alliance, formally known as the Association of Bay Area Health Officials, was born in 1985 within the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

Dr. David Werdegar, who turned well being officer for San Francisco that yr, was analyzing AIDS information for surrounding counties and requested their well being officers to affix him for dinner at Jack’s, an previous bordello-turned-political hangout within the metropolis that has since shuttered.

Most of the infectious illness analysis was taking place in San Francisco on the time, however HIV was spreading, and one metropolis couldn’t combat it alone.

“It was important that we share all the information we had,” stated Werdegar, now in his 80s and retired.

Dr. Robert Melton, a former Monterey County well being officer, stated that working for practically 20 years with Bay Area public well being giants taught him super classes. “Camaraderie is important in maintaining the energy to be able to focus on the common good, through good and bad,” he stated.

That close-knit relationship among the many 13 well being officers — representing counties stretching throughout a big swath of Northern California from Napa to Monterey — continues to this present day. Collectively, their public well being actions contact about eight.5 million individuals.

They meet month-to-month and talk frequently on Slack, a messaging app. Their numerous backgrounds and experience, particularly in an period of funding cuts, present a deep properly of public well being data from which to attract. Together, the group has joined forces to fight youth vaping, air air pollution and measles outbreaks.

And they’ve additionally tackled numerous influenza scares, which is why that they had an emergency response blueprint on the prepared when instances of what would later be known as COVID-19 first cropped up in Wuhan, China.

“We spent a couple years as a region thinking about pandemic planning, and that really helped us come a long way thinking about these policies for COVID-19,” stated Dr. Erica Pan, the interim well being officer for Alameda County.

So after they jumped on the decision that Sunday, they have been already in mid-conversation about how you can reply. They introduced their legal professionals and, working into the predawn hours, translated their lockdown plan into legalese, one that might be enforceable with fines and misdemeanor expenses.

They would make prime-time bulletins throughout the area the subsequent day, alongside elected officers. “This is not the moment for half-measures,” stated San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “History won’t forgive us for waiting an hour more.”

At first, the stay-at-home order utilized simply to the “Big Seven” counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay, whose officers peeled off from the bigger group to concern it first. They shared their mannequin ordinance with the others, who shortly adopted.

Dr. Gail Newel, an OB-GYN and Santa Cruz County’s well being officer, isn’t an infectious illness knowledgeable. She has relied closely on the group’s experience all through her profession, and particularly now.

“It’s this incredible bank of knowledge and wisdom and experience that’s freely shared among the members,” she stated. “And the whole Bay Area benefits by that shared knowledge bank.”


Roughly one month after they made the unprecedented choice to shut the native economic system, the chance appears to have paid off. It will probably be years earlier than researchers have totally analyzed its influence, however officers throughout the Bay Area are cautiously optimistic. Others haven’t been so fortunate.

Though there are essential variations between the 2 areas, New York City, which issued a stay-at-home order 4 days after the Bay Area, noticed its hospitals fully overwhelmed and had recorded more than 14,600 deaths as of Monday.

By comparability, the counties represented by the alliance have documented greater than 215 deaths and hospitals haven’t been overtaken by a surge. In truth, hospitals introduced on-line particularly to accommodate an overflow of sufferers are sitting largely empty.

Even inside California, communities that waited to concern lockdown orders have emerged as COVID-19 scorching spots, together with Los Angeles, the place Mayor Eric Garcetti adopted go well with three days after the Bay Area.

Internally, a few of the Bay Area well being officers have questioned in the event that they made the suitable name. But “anytime I have any doubt, I just read another news report from New York or Detroit or New Orleans,” stated Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County’s well being officer.

And the close-knit band is already enterprise its subsequent activity: reopening the economic system with out inflicting one other spike in instances.

Before the orders are lifted, the officers say there should be fast, widespread testing throughout the inhabitants. They wish to hire disease investigators by the tons of, if not the hundreds, to hint the virus and quarantine those that have been contaminated. And till there’s a vaccine, they could ask individuals to put on masks in public and proceed social distancing, even in bars, eating places and colleges after they reopen.

“I was concerned that we might get a lot of resistance and it might get interpreted as alarmist and overreach,” stated Marin County’s Willis. “Time has shown that it was really a vital step to take when we took it.”

This KHN story first revealed on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Angela Hart:”>, @ahartreports

Anna Maria Barry-Jester:”>, @annabarryjester

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