In summary

As California coronavirus cases continue to grow, so do questions about why the state wasn’t better prepared for COVID-19 pandemic.

Good morning, California. It’s Monday, March 30.

State ventilators “hadn’t been looked at or unboxed since 2011”

coronavirus pandemic respirator
An N95 respirator. Photo via iStock

This weekend we learned:

—The number of Californians being treated for COVID-19 in intensive care units spiked 105% from Friday to Saturday, while hospitalizations increased by over 38%.

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday: “You start doing the math, this is now made more real.”

—The surge in cases has alarmed public officials, who fear California’s hospital system may soon be overwhelmed.

  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Friday: “We’ll have doctors making excruciating decisions. We’ll be trying to figure out what we do with that surge, how to get ventilators, where to find beds.”

—California was far more prepared just a few years ago.

In 2006, under the threat of avian flu, the state invested in three 200-bed mobile hospitals and a stockpile of emergency supplies, including 50 million N95 masks, 2,400 ventilators and 21,000 mobile patient beds. But the program was defunded after the recession, and most of the supplies were donated to local hospitals — although they were not maintained and the masks expired, as did all 21 million in the state’s emergency stockpile.

In addition, 11 of California’s 40 public health labs shuttered over the past two decades because of inadequate funding. The state is now primarily relying on private and academic labs for coronavirus testing, just as it is calling on entrepreneurs and companies to refurbish expired ventilators or procure new ones.

At a Saturday press conference at San Jose-based Bloom Energy, Newsom said the company was refurbishing several hundred of the state’s 514 ventilators that “hadn’t been looked at or unboxed since 2011,” adding, “They quite literally were not working.” Neither were the 170 ventilators the federal government sent Los Angeles County, which Bloom is also refurbishing.

  • Newsom: “We’re a state that believes in taking risks without being reckless. We talk in terms … of moving at Silicon Valley speed to address problems head-on, to iterate, to learn from our mistakes, to lean into the future boldly and confidently.”

The Bottom Line: As of 10:45 p.m. Sunday night, California had 6,358 confirmed coronavirus cases and 132 deaths from the virus, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker. (These numbers are different from those of the state Department of Public Health, which are updated less often.)

Exclusive CalMatters coronavirus content: Do you have questions about homeschooling and distance learning in the age of coronavirus? Tune in to our webinar Wednesday at 1 p.m. with Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the CA State Board of Education. Register here and submit your questions here.

Senate President Atkins: A day in the sheltering-in-place life

California State Senate President Toni Atkins working from home. Photo via Instagram

What’s it like for the president of the state Senate to shelter in place at home in San Diego?

“Can I tell you, I love being home. I have to be honest,” Sen. Toni Atkins told me over the phone Friday, from a makeshift office in her 1,400-square-foot craftsman house in San Diego’s South Park neighborhood.

In a routine different from her normal schedule, Atkins said she and her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, wake up around 6 a.m. and take a three- to four-mile walk with their beloved dog, Joey, before eating breakfast (a piece of high-fiber toast and juice). Then she moves to her workspace: a couch, laptop, iPad and coffee, with Joey nearby.

Atkins said she’s busy with constituent questions, Senate work, her office staff and two calls a week with the governor. Because she calls herself “technologically challenged,” work is done mostly over the phone, not Zoom or Google video chats.

The workflow is different from Sacramento. “That pressure to schedule everything and meet with everyone … if it’s not a priority, it’s being deferred,” she said. Questions of going back into session and the COVID-19 crisis have replaced conversations about bills and other issues.

Midday is another walk around the neighborhood with Joey and lunch — usually a protein drink — with LeSar. Then it’s back to phone calls before an evening walk with the dog and dinner (usually salmon or chicken with vegetables and a beer or two).

To wind down, Atkins and LeSar play three games of backgammon, read and catch up on Oscar-nominated movies like “The Two Popes” and “The Irishman.” Atkins has been going to bed at 10 p.m. — for the first time in 25 years of public service, there aren’t any community meetings to attend.

“Maybe the universe is telling us it’s OK to take a break,” she said.

The Legislature is scheduled to return to session April 13. But … “it is a week by week” determination, Atkins said.

Other stories you should know

1. CA seniors struggle with isolation, anxiety during shelter-in-place

Food bank volunteer Betty Kimmel wears a protective mask as she hands out oranges to seniors at Teamsters 315 Hall in Martinez on March 19, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Food bank volunteer Betty Kimmel hands out oranges to seniors at Teamsters 315 Hall in Martinez. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

As California’s 5.7 million residents over the age of 65 — 20% of whom live alone — shelter in place, many are increasingly vulnerable to isolation, fear and anxiety as their connection to the outside world shuts down. Isolation can pose significant health risks for seniors, and there’s been an uptick in the number of seniors seeking food and emotional support, with some Bay Area food banks doubling their weekly meal distributions, The Mercury News’ Erica Hellerstein reports.

  • CA Dept of Aging Director Kim McCoy Wade: “If I have one message, it’s for us all to be checking in on each other. Somebody you might not have called last week or two weeks ago, call them now.”
  • Fear, anxiety and stress affect all of us. CalMatters health reporter Jocelyn Wiener compiled a list of tips and resources from mental health professionals to help navigate this difficult time.

2. Looks like fewer initiatives on November ballot

Joseph Maxhimer, right, gathers signatures in Sacramento for three measures trying to qualify for the November ballot. Photograph by Laurel Rosenhall for CalMatters

California voters will likely face a shorter ballot come November as the coronavirus pandemic hampers initiative signature-gathering, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. (There’s fewer people outside to gather signatures from, and no one wants to share pens and paper with strangers right now). In 2016, Californians voted on 17 statewide ballot measures; this year, the number is estimated to be between six and 10. The silver lining: a shorter, and therefore less intimidating, ballot could help voter participation.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare multibillion-dollar shortcomings in state government finances that have been ignored for decades, despite many warnings.

Electric vehicles won’t work for all consumers: State policymakers recognize — and must continue to recognize — the need for another clean transportation alternative: hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, writes Jack Brouwer, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center and associate director of the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine.

Care over incarceration: If a report called “Care First, Jail Last” is implemented fully in Los Angeles County, it would be on the threshold of the most ambitious justice system changes in the country, argues Kelly Lytle Hernández, a professor and Thomas E. Lifka Chair of History at UCLA.

Other things worth your time

California shuts down parking lots at all 280 state parks to minimize crowds and encourage physical distancing. // The San Francisco Chronicle

Meet the doctor who ordered the Bay Area shutdown — the first in the U.S. // The Mercury News

And meet some of the Californians participating in the “The Great American Migration” away from coronavirus hotbeds. // The Washington Post

Newsom and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have taken the lead in the U.S.’ coronavirus response. // The Los Angeles Times

Thirty percent of California restaurants could close without state aid. // The Associated Press

CalPERS, the state’s public employee pension program, is not prepared for a recession. // The Mercury News

PG&E plans to pay $4 million in involuntary manslaughter fines out of its fire victims fund. // The Los Angeles Times

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein: We now know what to do before the next coronavirus outbreak hits. // The Los Angeles Times

The house on Magnolia Street: How a group of homeless mothers took on California’s housing crisis. // California Sunday Magazine


See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...