SAN FRANCISCO – On the morning of March 15, as Italy became the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, a half dozen high-ranking California health officials held an emergency conference call to discuss efforts to contain the spread of the virus in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The tight-knit group of Bay Area doctors organized the call to discuss a consistent policy on public gatherings for the region's 7 million people, which then had fewer than 280 cases and just three deaths. Soon, though, the conversation focused on the potentially catastrophic emergency on their hands and how stay-at-home orders could slow the advance of the virus.
Many factors have fueled the speed of the disease spread throughout the world. But that three-hour call and the bold decisions to come out of it were central to helping California avoid the kind of devastation the virus wrought in parts of Europe and New York City, experts say.
“It was obviously spreading like wildfire under our noses and literally every minute we did not take aggressive action was going to mean more and more death,” said Dr. Scott Morrow, health director for San Mateo County, just south of San Francisco and home to Facebook.
The doctors who met that day are members of the Association of Bay Area Health Officers, a group born out of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged San Francisco in the 1980s. The group usually meets a half-dozen times a year and has tackled other global threats such as Ebola and swine flu.
By mid-March, group members were alarmed by the spread of the virus since an initial case in the state was confirmed Jan. 26. Dr. Sara Cody, the top doctor in Santa Clara County, home to 2 million residents and the headquarters of Apple and Google, told her peers that COVID-19 cases were doubling every three days. In neighboring San Mateo County, every test conducted was coming back positive, shared Morrow. Across the bay in Alameda County, Dr. Erica Pan reported that cases were rising in areas bordering Santa Clara County.
A day later, the San Francisco Bay Area became the first place in the nation to order residents to stay home. At least 20 other California counties adopted the Bay Area order within hours. Two days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all 40 million Californians to stay home unless they had essential jobs.
It's impossible to quantify how much those orders helped or truly compare states or countries because of other potential factors such as population density, international travel and the number of tests being conducted in each place. However, experts in disease control say the Bay Area's early intervention clearly played a significant role in slowing the speed of infection throughout California.