In summary

California may be about to hit coronavirus peak. Are new masks coming from China safe? COVID-19 poses dire predicament for farms and farmworkers

Good morning, California. It’s Monday, April 13.

“The better-case scenario we always hoped for”

Health care workers at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Francisco on April 9. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Today California will hit its peak in terms of the number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators needed to treat COVID-19 patients, with a peak in daily deaths on Wednesday, according to a popular model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Although state officials continue to cite models that predict hospitalizations will peak in May, Health Secretary Mark Ghaly said Friday the peak may not be too different from current hospitalization levels.

The red dotted line illustrates how California’s actual COVID-19 hospitalizations are falling below projections. Image via Twitter
  • Ghaly, indicating the red dotted line: “This is actually signaling to us that our peak may end up not being as high as we actually planned around and expected, and the difference between what we’re seeing today in our hospitals may not be that much different than where we are going to peak in the many weeks to come.”

Both Ghaly and Gov. Gavin Newsom emphasized the red dotted line will rise if Californians stop practicing physical distancing. Nevertheless, the line suggests that California is experiencing “the better-case scenario we had always hoped for,” as Ghaly put it, raising questions as to when the state will begin to reopen.

  • Newsom: “I know all of us are developing some anxiety and cabin fever and want to get out. … Let’s continue to hold the line. Give us a few more weeks to see where these trend lines go, and then we’ll be talking a lot more … when we can go back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Meanwhile, state economic trendlines are ominous. The Department of Finance announced in a Friday letter the state is spending $6 billion on its coronavirus response on top of the $1 billion of emergency funding already allocated, while Newsom asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for $1 trillion in direct relief for states and local governments. Also on Friday, the governor’s chief economic and business adviser, Lenny Mendonca, stepped down to focus on his family and personal businesses, raising questions about who will guide the governor in rebuilding the economy after an unprecedented crisis.

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The Bottom Line: As of 9 p.m. Sunday night, California had 23,287 confirmed coronavirus cases and 681 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.)

Also: CalMatters is tracking, by county, positive and suspected cases of COVID-19 patients hospitalized throughout the state. We’re also tracking the state’s daily actions in response to coronavirus.

California is importing millions of masks from China. Are they safe?

An N95 respirator. Image via iStock

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week that California will spend nearly $1 billion for 200 million medical-grade masks per month is dependent on BYD, a Chinese company that is legally banned from bidding for some American federal contracts, and has been accused of supplying faulty products to states including California, Vice reports. The state Office of Emergency Services declined to tell Vice whether the masks purchased by California are N95 quality or KN95, a Chinese version of the mask that the Food and Drug Administration refused to approve until April 3.

  • US Rep. John Garamendi of California to Vice: “What the hell? What is our government doing? They may very well flood the market with substandard devices, and people will be relying on them as though they are of satisfactory quality.” 

In light of these concerns, California lawmakers demanded more details from the governor about the “performance standards” of the vendor and manufacturer and “quality standards” of the masks. A letter from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee also asked the governor’s office to launch a website early this week that regularly tracks the supplies received by the state and details about how and where the equipment is distributed. 

  • Sen. Holly Mitchell, Joint Legislative Budget Committee chair: “Under normal circumstances, the Legislature would have had more time to deliberate an expenditure of this magnitude. … I understand the Administration feels the need to act quickly due to the worldwide demand for masks. … However, I request that the Administration provide the (committee) with the full details …”

Other stories you should know

1. Coronavirus puts CA farms and farmworkers in dire predicament

A farmworker walks past a field of broccoli in Salinas on April 8. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

Although farmworkers are taking precautions in the fields to protect themselves from coronavirus, many live in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, the perfect recipe for an outbreak that could threaten the entire country’s food supply, the Salinas Californian’s Kate Cimini reports. The problem is particularly acute for H-2A farmworkers in the United States with temporary visas, essential workers during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as restaurants close or slim down their menus, farmers face a diminished market for produce, with many finding it more cost-effective to let crops rot in the fields even as food banks grapple with unprecedented demand. But getting food from the fields to the food banks isn’t as simple as it sounds, the Fresno Bee’s Manuela Tobias and Robert Rodriguez report.

2. As Californians stay home, smog lifts

A nearly empty freeway in Los Angeles. Photo by Kirby Lee via AP

The stay-at-home order may be giving Californians cabin fever, but it’s also clearing up the skies. Highway traffic is down by more than 50% since the start of the pandemic, and emissions have also been cut in half in parts of the state, CalMatters’ Julie Cart reports. The news is a breath of fresh air for Californians with chronic health conditions like asthma and heart disease, who also face a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. But officials warn that smog and pollution will return once the pandemic is over, unless Californians are committed to keeping the air clean.

  • Yifang Zhu, professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health: “We don’t need a pandemic to breathe clear air. This should be the air we breathe every day.”

3. Public good vs. individual liberties: Tensions begin to brew

The Rev. Matthew Wheeler livestreams the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. Anthony Parish in San Gabriel on April 9. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, AP

After San Bernardino and Riverside counties were threatened with lawsuits claiming that shelter-in-place orders would violate religious liberty by preventing Christians from celebrating Easter on Sunday, both counties said congregants could attend services this weekend, so long as they practiced social distancing. This highlights the growing tension between public health demands and constitutionally protected freedoms, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports.

  • Harmeet Dhillon, founder of the Center for American Liberty: “You haven’t seen me file a lawsuit yet because life is more important than some of these things. To a point.”

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: There’s no doubt Gov. Newsom harbors presidential ambitions. Although he’s handled the coronavirus pandemic well so far, he faces years of crisis that will decisively fix his place in California political history and determine how far he can go.

Let’s ensure coronavirus doesn’t worsen hiring inequality. The TECH Act will help fight employment discrimination by encouraging the use of hiring technology tools that help eliminate bias, writes Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro CHA.

Time to embrace 21st-century tools: When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, it exposed the Legislature’s lack of wisdom in approving a two-year moratorium on the expansion of distance learning in charter public schools, argues Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice.

Other things worth your time

Coronavirus may have been in California long before anyone knew. // The Los Angeles Times

San Francisco, the city that flattened the coronavirus curve. // The Atlantic

So does swimming in the ocean actually put you at risk for coronavirus? // The Los Angeles Times

Many young Californians are moving back in with their parents to ride out the pandemic. // The Los Angeles Times

How the Bay Area poor are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus’s economic effects. // The San Francisco Chronicle

California’s unemployment office expands call center hours to deal with unprecedented demand. // The Sacramento Bee

What hospital ministry looks like in the age of coronavirus. // KQED

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See you tomorrow.

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