As California confronts its darkest moment yet of the pandemic, complications in the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine — which Gov. Gavin Newsom billed as the “light at the end of the tunnel” — suggest that the tunnel may be longer than previously thought.

Although the Golden State was slated to receive around 2.1 million vaccine doses by the end of December, it had received less than 1.5 million as of Saturday — and only 412,000 Californians had gotten their first shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That represents about 17% of the health care workers California prioritized for the vaccine — many of whom are refusing to take it. Between 20% and 40% of frontline workers in Los Angeles County and up to 50% in Riverside County have turned down the vaccine.

The surprising development has left hospitals and public health officers unsure of what to do with the extra doses, which must be distributed according to state and federal guidelines even as interest groups clamor to be next in line. To prevent the doses from going to waste, two Southern California hospitals apparently inoculated employee relatives — a violation of federal guidelines that some leaders nonetheless praised. 

Adding to California’s coronavirus challenges, at least six cases of a new, potentially more contagious strain have been confirmed in the Golden State. And dangerously low ICU capacity means that 98.3% of Californians will remain under regional stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. 

______________

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 2,391,261 confirmed cases (+1.9% from previous day) and 26,538 deaths (+0.7% from previous day) 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. Challenges for new legislative session

Members of the state Assembly gathered on the floor of the Golden 1 Center for their organizational session in Sacramento on Dec. 7, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool

Newsom and the state Legislature are heading into the 2021 legislative session facing a host of challenges. The pandemic, which drastically shortened 2020’s legislative session, has already impacted this one: Lawmakers were originally set to return to Sacramento today, but pushed their return date to Jan. 11, citing the coronavirus surge. The delay has frustrated some legislators who felt left out of major decisions Newsom made last session. And time is of the essence for a bevy of contentious bills, including eviction protections and school reopenings.

Meanwhile, Newsom is heading into the new year with a reshaped administration, a $2 billion plan to accelerate school reopenings and the likely intention of fending off a recall movement that has recently attracted big donors. The governor on Friday will likely unveil his 2021-22 budget — one that will take into account both the good news of a one-time $26 billion surplus and the bad news of no aid from the federal government.

A new year also means new laws. Here are nine of California’s most noteworthy laws that went into effect Jan. 1 — ranging from family leave to mental health care to policing the police to ethnic studies — explained in 1 minute each.

2. EDD faces big tests

Image via iStock

California’s unemployment department is ringing in the new year with a new director, but many of its old problems remain. The backlog of claims has swelled to nearly 780,000 — up from 543,000 in mid-November — despite the state’s goal of clearing all unprocessed claims by Jan. 27. Meanwhile, the Employment Development Department announced Sunday it had suspended payment on an unspecified number of claims in its latest attempt to mitigate fraud — one likely to prevent thousands of jobless Californians from rightfully accessing their benefits.

The news comes as the department prepares to expedite payment of federal unemployment benefits — secured by December’s stimulus package — to more than 1 million Californians. Distributing the federal funds will be a massive test for EDD, which has allegedly paid out billions of dollars in fraudulent claims since the onset of the pandemic. EDD and its payment contractor, Bank of America, are currently fighting over who will ultimately pay for the fraud.

  • Mason Wilder of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners: “If it turns out that California should not have approved all these claims, then regardless of what their agreement says with Bank of America about debit cards, I would think that ultimately the taxpayers are going to be on the hook for California’s errors.”

3. Legacy of a clean-air czar

Mary Nichols poses for a portrait outside her home in Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 2020. Photo by Kendrick Brinson for CalMatters

It’s the end of an era — Mary Nichols, who spearheaded California’s war on smog and built the state’s landmark climate change program, stepped down Dec. 31 as chair of the powerful California Air Resources Board after more than a decade on the job. In this new profile, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker examines Nichols’ legacy — including pushback from activists who said she didn’t do enough to protect low-income communities. The critique apparently scuttled Nichols’ chances of leading President-elect Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, pointing to the growing strength of California’s environmental justice movement and foreshadowing a different approach to climate change under new air board chair Liane Randolph.

Meanwhile, Nichols, wounded but determined, is contemplating her next steps — including writing a book.

  • Nichols: “I’ll have to decide if the EPA episode is a chapter, a footnote or an endnote. It’s not planned to be a focus.”

4. Reflecting on a year of loss

Image via iStock

As we head into a new year, it’s always important — and illuminating — to reflect on the past one, which is just what CalMatters did with a wide-ranging project, “A Year of Loss.” We talked with Californians from every walk of life and in every pocket of the state to explore how the coronavirus pandemic touched their lives and brought about losses both minute and infinite. Yet some found shards of hope amid the wreckage as they looked ahead to the promise and uncertainty of 2021. Read their stories here.

  • Assemblymember Tom Lackey, 61, a Palmdale Republican: “I felt like I was a complete failure, like I deserved to have this virus, I was not going to recover, I was going to disappoint my family.”
  • Kunchok Rabgee, 42, of Santa Cruz: “I just feel like I gotta work harder.”
  • Mary Lynn Briggs, 63, of Bakersfield: “I used to be a glass-half-full kind of person. Not anymore.”
  • Adia Romaine-Figueroa, 30, of Jackson: “I have hopes. I don’t have any plans.”

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s 170 years of strong population growth have ended, with massive economic and political implications.

California’s plan to reopen schools: We must provide the benefits of safe in-person learning to as many students as possible, writes Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education.

Protect vulnerable tenants: Legislators must reform a law that allows real estate speculators to evict elderly, disabled and other long-term tenants, argues Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

Tejon Ranch controversy: Here’s what’s at stake with the dissolution of a landmark partnership between environmentalists and land developers, writes independent journalist Jane Braxton Little.


Other things worth your time

How Newport Beach ended up with 2 affordable housing units in 8 years. // CalMatters

How the remote work revolution could change California’s housing crisis. // CalMatters

Podcast: An interview with Newsom’s housing czar. // CalMatters

A new era for San Jose City Hall. // Mercury News

Feds: Los Angeles is the riskiest place in the United States. // Associated Press

Gascón sued by deputy district attorney union over enhancements policy. // Los Angeles Times

Inside San Diego’s illegal gambling casinos. // Los Angeles Times

San Francisco sees record overdose deaths in 2020. // San Francisco Chronicle

California community colleges to get $1 billion in federal relief. // CalMatters

California substitute teacher shortage could keep some schools closed. // EdSource

Will California finally fulfill its promise to fix the Salton Sea? // High Country News


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...