Health care operations company OptumServe has quietly been assuming an ever-larger role in California’s pandemic response — including its vaccine rollout — despite numerous counties expressing dissatisfaction with its services.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday announced plans to open 11 OptumServe vaccination sites to serve “some of the hardest-hit or most at-risk communities” in the Central Valley. That same day, the rural Northern California county of Lassen said it would sever ties with OptumServe, alleging the company’s COVID-19 testing clinics were poorly run, had “beyond disappointing” testing numbers, and were staffed by employees who were “coughing violently” and didn’t wear proper protective gear. (The allegations are disputed by the California Department of Public Health.)

Newsom in April unveiled plans to open 80 OptumServe testing sites throughout California — but the state didn’t publicize its recent decision to end a high-profile relationship with Verily, another testing vendor, and consolidate those sites under OptumServe. State records show that OptumServe won a $300 million contract to provide testing services through April 15, on top of a $177 million contract last year. OptumServe’s parent company, UnitedHealth, is a major Newsom donor.

The state also didn’t publicize a “pilot vaccination program” that consisted of OptumServe in late January opening vaccine clinics in Sonoma, San Bernardino, Riverside and Contra Costa counties. But glitches with the state’s MyTurn registration system led to OptumServe canceling thousands of appointments in Sonoma, which county officials called a “debacle.” (Registration complications have also emerged in the Central Valley.)

Meanwhile, counties with OptumServe vaccine sites are getting an increased allocation of doses from the state — but are required to reserve a certain amount for OptumServe, apparently leaving less for the counties’ other clinics.

The California Department of Public Health and OptumServe did not respond to questions asking how many vaccine clinics the company is operating in the state and whether it’s being paid to run them. Blue Shield, which is in charge of authorizing California’s vaccine providers, declined to comment on whether it’s approved OptumServe.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Thursday, California had 3,460,326 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 50,991 deaths (+2.2% from previous day), 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.


1. Who can reopen schools?

Jill Borges, far right, a teacher at Cupertino High School, protests school closings in the Cupertino and Sunnyvale school districts with her three children, from left to right, Emry, 9, Cruz, 7, and Brooklyn, 9, in front of Fremont High School in Sunnyvale on Feb. 23, 2021. Photo by Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group
Jill Borges, far right, a teacher at Cupertino High School, protests school closings with her three children in Sunnyvale on Feb. 23, 2021. Photo by Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group

Newsom on Thursday revealed how the state will distribute the 10% of vaccine doses it’s reserving for K-12 school employees and child care workers each week starting March 1. The plan prioritizes doses for workers in underserved communities and those who have already returned to campus or will soon. The state will also host “education worker days” at mass vaccination sites in Oakland and Los Angeles.

But, weeks after Newsom said a school reopening deal with lawmakers was imminent, one still hasn’t been announced — exposing the complexity and fragmentation of California’s education system. More than 1,000 school districts have been tasked with deciding — mostly through negotiations with local labor unions — when and how to reopen. Yet the districts must follow laws crafted by a Legislature with close ties to organized labor and signed by a governor elected with the support of the teachers union — but who now finds himself somewhat at odds with it. So who, ultimately, has the final say over when districts open? CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall breaks down the power politics behind the fraught debate as the one-year anniversary of school closures looms.

2. Unemployment claims drop steeply

Image via iStock

The number of Californians filing new unemployment claims fell below 100,000 last week for just the second time since the state shut down last March, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday. About 89,500 Californians filed initial jobless claims for the week ending Feb. 20 — a stark contrast from the week prior, which saw nearly 159,000 new claims, the highest total in more than a month.

In another piece of comparatively good news, the backlog of unemployment claims at the Employment Development Department decreased for the first time in seven weeks — though 1.14 million claims remain unresolved, the agency announced Thursday. Though EDD says approximately 80% of the backlog is due to claimants not certifying their eligibility, the logjam has been the department’s most persistent problem apart from fraud. Of the $122 billion in benefits EDD has paid out since March, up to $31 billion may have gone to fraudsters. But how did things get to this point? Check out this comprehensive explainer from CalMatters’ Lauren Hepler to guide you through what happened and what might come next for EDD.

3. Youths under 16 can’t be tried as adults

Image via iStock

Fourteen and 15-year-olds who commit crimes cannot be tried as adults, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday — upholding a 2019 law that amended a ballot measure voters passed in 2016. The opinion from the state’s highest court means youths under 16 must be tried in juvenile court and, in most cases, must be released by age 25.

Prosecutors had argued the 2019 law violated Prop. 57, which allowed them to charge 14-year-olds as adults if given the go-ahead by a juvenile court judge. But Prop. 57 itself aimed to keep more youth offenders from receiving adult sentences: It repealed a 2000 ballot measure that permitted prosecutors to charge youths as adults without the approval of a juvenile court judge, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.


CalMatters commentary

Ensure employee vaccination: Newsom should use his emergency powers to move forward on employee vaccination requirements, argues Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of the USC Keck School of Medicine.

Sad about statue removal: Memorials to Native peoples and Father Junipero Serra can coexist in Capitol Park, writes John Fairbanks, parishioner of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and publisher of Capitol Morning Report.

Other things worth your time

California air board tells San Joaquin Valley growers to phase out agricultural burns by 2025. // CalMatters

Court upholds California’s COVID-19 workplace rules requiring testing, sick pay. // Sacramento Bee

Judge refuses to block ‘hero pay’ wage hike for Long Beach grocery workers. // Long Beach Post

San Diego parents sue state to overturn school reopening rules. // San Diego Union-Tribune

California moves to pursue flexibility waivers for standardized tests. // EdSource

California schools official promoted extremist 9/11 and Holocaust conspiracy theories. // Sacramento Bee

California educators pay a wage penalty for working with younger children, report shows. // EdSource

U.S. Supreme Court divided on case of California motorist pursued by CHP into his home. // Los Angeles Times

California DOJ says it can’t deliver on police shooting reviews without more funds. // Sacramento Bee

One Medical’s vaccine supply halted by 3 Bay Area counties for letting people cut the line. // San Francisco Chronicle

Winds again temporarily close Disneyland mass vaccination site. // Orange County Register

See you Monday.

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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...