Coronavirus Context: Gov. Gavin Newsom's grim worst case scenario of COVID-19 explained

ByKris Reyes KGO logo
Saturday, March 21, 2020
Governor Newsom's very grim 'worst case scenario' of COVID-19 explained
Governor Gavin Newsom gave us the statistic that is driving his government's unprecedented measures to contain the spread of novel coronavirus --- 56 % of Californians could be infected in eight weeks, if we do nothing.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Governor Gavin Newsom gave us the statistic that is driving his government's unprecedented measures to contain the spread of novel coronavirus: 56% of Californians could be infected in eight weeks, if we do nothing.

It's a number that is startling and scary. And we felt that it needed a lot of context and explanation. Make no mistake, the number is real and it is scary and as soon as the governor said it, everyone paid attention.

"As a nation state 40 million strong, we've been organized around an attack rate as we refer to it of about 56%, that the virus will impact about 56% of us," he said in a news conference that announced a statewide stay-at-home policy.

But, if there is one story where you have to read past the headline, it's this one. And we want to make sure you hear exactly what the governor said after that statement and why that number is important, but not as alarming as it sounds. So, let's start with what he says right after.

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"That number in of itself shouldn't be particularly alarming, the vast majority of us, the overwhelming majority will be perfectly fine," said Newsom.

That's because many people who are COVID-19 positive are either asymptomatic or have mild-symptoms or need no hospitalization. The other thing to remember about this number 56% - which amounts to more than 20 million people is that it is a "worst case scenario." Something the Governor repeats and emphasizes.

"Let me remind you, the numbers we put out today assume that we're just along for the ride, we're not. We want to manipulate those numbers down," he said.

We know we are not just along for the ride because in the last week, these decisions have been made. The entire state of California is under a stay-at-home order.

Schools, restaurants, offices are all shut down. We now know more now than we've ever known about how to wash hands, what it means to social distance. Methods known as mitigation and suppression. So, why is the worst case scenario important. Well, because the government needs to be ready for it.

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"Let me be precise, it's a number that we've been using for the purpose of guiding our resource delivery and guiding our decision making," he said.

Here's an example of what that worst case scenario means for hospitals - 20,000 people would need hospitalization. According to the governor, the state's hospital system can handle a surge of 10,000, but not more than that. After, that you'll see the kind of collapse we saw in Italy.

"We're looking at a delta, a gap of 10,000 beds, 10,000 members of the community to staff those beds and that's currently what we're up against," said Newsom.

So, that worst case scenario backed by the best data planning tools available is driving the government to do the following: buy two new hospitals, send a letter to the president requesting for the naval hospital ship USNS Mercy to dock in Los Angeles, order a statewide stay-at-home policy.

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The big unknown here of course is this: what happens if what we're doing works out? What are those numbers? We don't know. But here's what we do know about this number: 56% is a projection from the best public health experts in the world, using the best available data. It's the reason why we can project our curve to be in line with Italy - which has been the worst case scenario we have seen so far.

Fifty-six percent of us could be infected. It's a hard number to swallow, but one that we need to understand thoroughly, in order to make the right decisions.

"Let's bend the curve together, let's not regret, let's not dream of regretting, we woulda coulda shoulda, not when the data points to where most of us know we are going, one has to be transparent and one has to be honest," said Newsom. "If we are to be criticized, let's be criticized for meeting this virus head on," he said.