Earlier this week, investigations into California’s COVID-19 coronavirus preparedness found that a $200 million emergency pandemic response program passed and signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 had been completely defunded only 5 years later.
A 2000’s need, a 2010’s cut
Following a SARS outbreak in 2003 and a bird flu outbreak in 2005, then-Governor Schwarzenegger started to create a stockpile of pandemic supplies including three 200-bed mobile hospitals that could be rapidly deployed, 21,000 additional patient beds, 2,400 portable ventilators, and 50 million N95 respirators. Schwarzenegger admitted that he was concerned over California’s preparedness for a widespread outbreak.
“As public servants, our ultimate responsibility is not just to make a budget balance, but to save lives,’’ said Schwarzenegger in an interview with Politico. “I thought we have to be prepared, because we are the fifth largest economy in the world.”
For five years California was prepared, nearly needing to use some of the gathered supplies during the 2009 swine flu outbreak. However, despite costing the state only $5.8 million out of a budget at the time amounting to $129 billion dollars, the program was soon in danger. The 2011 California budget crisis put California $26 billion into the red. Then-Governor Jerry Brown, who had recently replaced Schwarzenegger, and lawmakers in Sacramento decided that the program was not worth keeping, as it was deemed that such a large scenario was unlikely.
“When you’re stretched, prevention and readiness, future needs – unfortunately, that’s what gets cut,” said state Senator Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) in an interview. Pan had voted for the cuts while an Assemblyman in 2011.
“No one thought that we would ever see an event like this here,” explained ‘Dana’, who works at the state capitol. “I don’t recall too much about it now because there were so many cuts, but I do remember a few Senators briefly discussing it outside the old office I worked in. Neither believed we’d see something like this. I think one actually said ‘We’re not seeing a plague any time soon.”
“I guess they didn’t count on it happening in nine.”
Former Governor Schwarzenegger had opposed the cuts then and today calls them ‘shortsighted’. He specifically mentioned that it’s hard for people to imagine something like what coronavirus has done in only a few weeks.
“Yes, there was a budget crunch,” continued Schwarzenegger. “It’s easy for them to just look at the numbers, but not really to visualize disaster. They obviously made their judgments to take those expenditures out and to worry about a few million dollars.”
“Would I have done it? No. But I understand that every governor and every administration looks at those things differently.”
The lack of such a program in California has even been cited as giving California a higher coronavirus transmission rate and death toll then where it could have been.
“I’ve fielded a lot of calls from doctors and hospital administrators so far this week,” added Dana. “They’re all concerned about supplies after seeing New York begin to run out.”
“I told a few about how we did have a plan in place, but I had to stop because they were so mad. Hindsight is 20/20, but these are people who need these things to not get infected or die to help people. And we could have had them. We could have had total protection.”
“But we didn’t because of a tiny program that got cut.”
“I don’t know who the blame really lies on. Brown partially at least, but also every Senator and Assembly member on the Health subcommittees back then. I know no one could foresee this, but we just had a bunch of outbreaks and many people thought it would be critical to have. Not them apparently, even with the budget crisis we had back then.”
“You’d think people would want that kind of safety.”
Effects on the coronavirus today
Despite the program cancellation and the greater spread of coronavirus because of the cuts, Schwarzenegger has applauded Governor Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus-reducing efforts in California along with many other Republicans, including President Donald Trump. Schwarzenegger specifically noted that Newsom’s early lockdown announcement helped save lives.
“I think that he did a terrific job to be on top of it and to stay on top of it,” stated Schwarzenegger. “Whatever he needs me to do, I’ll do. I want to support him.”
But with the peak of coronavirus in California expected sometime in May with as many as 5,000 deaths per day currently being a possible projection, the thought of having a plan and supplies in place early on has been in the back of many healthcare workers, lawmakers, and citizens minds.
“We could have flattened the curve even more,” lamented Dana. “But we didn’t. I wish I could say differently.”
8,155 cases of COVID-19 coronavirus have been reported in California, with 171 deaths reported.