Thousands of California health care workers may receive their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine today, marking a promising new chapter in the state’s battle with the pandemic even as deadly outbreaks flare up. 

Portions of California’s initial allotment of 327,000 doses were slated to begin arriving at health care facilities Sunday night, with shipments continuing throughout the week. After receiving emergency approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration on Friday, Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine was cleared Sunday for distribution in California when an independent panel of experts confirmed its safety and efficacy — an extra step Gov. Gavin Newsom said would “ensure public confidence” in the vaccine. Health care workers treating COVID-19 patients in hospitals, as well as nursing home staff, will receive the first doses

  • Newsom: “To help end this pandemic and move toward phased vaccine distribution across our state, we are calling on all Californians to continue doing their part by following local and state guidance, wearing a mask and staying home.” 

The welcoming news comes amid a sobering surge in coronavirus cases that has led to record hospitalizations and severely strained California’s health care system. ICU capacity in the San Joaquin Valley region plummeted to 0% on Saturday, though it rebounded slightly to 1.5% on Sunday. The state on Friday logged a record 218 deaths, breaking its highest single-day total for the second time that week. Meanwhile, sizable outbreaks are cropping up across California, including at a Foster Farms poultry plant in Fresno; a Placer County youth basketball league; the Golden Gate Fields horse racing track in Berkeley; and at state prisons, where many medically vulnerable inmates haven’t been prioritized for release, as CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports

With the state expected to receive around 2.1 million COVID-19 vaccines this month, everyone from farmworkers to grocers to teachers to Uber drivers is jostling to be next in line. But since California has more than 2 million health care workers alone and the vaccine requires two doses spaced three weeks apart, it will be months before there’s enough to go around.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Sunday night, California had 1,551,766 confirmed coronavirus cases and 20,969 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.

Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.


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1. Newsom’s new lobbying ban

Newsom at a news conference in Sacramento on May 14, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool

Newsom on Friday unveiled a new ethics policy that prevents his paid political and campaign consultants from directly lobbying him, his staff or state agencies he controls with the goal of influencing legislative or administrative action. The new policy also prohibits registered lobbyists from serving as paid consultants to Newsom and creates a new Chief Ethics Advisor position. The move came a day after a scathing editorial in the Sacramento Bee argued that Newsom’s appointment of registered lobbyist Jim DeBoo as a top aide raised “troubling ethical questions” — and about a month after Newsom attended a dinner party at the French Laundry with multiple lobbyists. While some experts characterized the new policy as groundbreaking, others pointed out that it doesn’t prevent Newsom from taking on unpaid consultants who are also registered lobbyists.

  • Bob Stern, an author of a key California conflict-of-interest law: “It’s better than nothing, but I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact.”
  • Ann Ravel, former chair of the state Fair Political Practices Commission: “I applaud Governor Newsom for enacting higher ethical standards than any previous governor’s administration.”

2. Recall effort gains momentum

Newsom at the Sacramento Kings stadium. Photo by Renée C. Byer, The Sacramento Bee/Pool

Newsom’s emphasis on ethics comes as he approaches a make-or-break point in his career and as the long-shot attempt to recall him gains steam. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee last week formally endorsed the effort to recall Newsom, injecting new life into a campaign that has gathered about half the signatures it needs to qualify for the ballot. The two Republicans plan to support the recall through social media, donor phone calls, Zoom meetings and fundraising emails, Politico reports.

  • Orrin Heatlie, lead organizer of the recall: “We have a French Laundry list of reasons why people want to recall him. Every day he does something new to give people new reasons to want to come and sign.”
  • Newsom campaign spokesman Dan Newman: “These anti-vaccine pro-Trump extremists would rather create an expensive sideshow instead of working together to distribute the vaccine and restart our economy.”

Although a recent survey found that approval for Newsom remains high, the governor’s team is increasingly concerned that the recall could become a major threat in 2021 if it gains significant financial support, according to Politico.

3. Unemployment backlog still growing

Image via iStock

The problems just keep racking up at California’s beleaguered unemployment department. Despite the state’s vow to clear all backlogged claims by the end of January, the backlog has steadily grown for a month, climbing from 543,000 claims on Nov. 12 to 748,000 on Friday. Meanwhile, thousands of Californians may be forced to repay some of their benefits to the Employment Development Department due to a logistical complication in how they reported their income.

Reports of fraud also continue to dog EDD. A Pasadena man was arraigned Friday on federal charges alleging he bought a Maserati SUV with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulently obtained benefits. Prosecutors estimate EDD has paid at least $2 billion in fraudulent claims amid the pandemic — but the actual number is likely much higher, according to a Friday report from the California Center for Jobs and the Economy. In 2018, EDD said it had determined 2.6% of all payments to be fraudulent. When this rate is applied to the $110 billion EDD has paid since March, it results in nearly $2.9 billion worth of fraudulent payments. But that’s not all — EDD reported an average “improper payment” rate of 8% from 2016 through 2019. If this rate still holds true, California may have improperly paid at least $8.5 billion in benefits since March.

4. Record-setting election

An Oakland rally on Nov. 4, 2020. Photo by Brian Howey for CalMatters

Nearly 17.8 million Californians cast ballots in the November election, setting a new state record, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who certified the election results Friday. Nearly 81% of registered voters turned out — the highest percentage since 1976 — and nearly 71% of eligible voters cast ballots, the highest percentage since 1952. Much of this increase was fueled by voters in California’s poor and diverse neighborhoods, with the number of cast ballots increasing by as much as 42% in Orange County’s poor neighborhoods, according to a CalMatters analysis. But increases were seen in all types of California neighborhoods — rich and poor, highly educated and blue collar, ethnically diverse and homogenous — which experts attribute to the state’s decision to mail every registered voter a ballot amid the pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden won 63.5% of the vote in California, compared to President Donald Trump’s 34.3%. Today, California’s 55 members of the electoral college will gather at the state Capitol to formally cast their votes for Biden.


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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California has released its third draft of a model ethnic studies curriculum for high school students — and it’s a big improvement on its predecessors.

Lessons from Gray Davis’ recall: Neither Newsom nor Democrats should ignore the current recall effort, neglect to prepare for it, or assume it will not make the ballot, writes veteran Democratic strategist Garry South.

Distribute vaccine with equity in mind: Frontline workers have carried an unfair burden of getting the virus at higher rates, and it’s critical they get the vaccine first, argues Dr. Anthony Iton of the California Endowment.


Other things worth your time

Oracle latest tech company to move its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Texas. // CNBC

Newsom appoints Dee Dee Myers as top economic adviser. // Politico

Pseudo states ‘New California’ and ‘New Nevada’ back Texas election lawsuit. // The Hill

Four million Californians sign up for smartphone COVID-19 alerts. // San Diego Union-Tribune

How Hollywood deployed lobbyists to win exemptions from California’s lockdown. // The Intercept

A California councilwoman’s quest to keep Los Angeles restaurants open. // New Yorker

Several UC chancellors call for tuition increase amid budget crisis. // Los Angeles Times

California sent more than 1,000 vulnerable children to out-of-state facilities. Reports of rampant abuse followed. // San Francisco Chronicle

Los Angeles is paying $130,000 for an 8-by-8 shed in bid to house the homeless. // Los Angeles Times

San Francisco’s building department is a mess. It’s no wonder pay-to-play rules the day. // San Francisco Chronicle

Million-dollar views, cheap rent and allegations of favoritism at California state parks. // Los Angeles Times


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...