What in the world is going on with California’s struggle against COVID-19?

The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday published an article declaring that COVID-19 hospitalizations in Los Angeles County appeared to be leveling off, only to update the story hours later to acknowledge an uptick in new patients. The Mercury News found that average daily reported new cases appear to be plateauing in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the state as a whole — even as breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated people rise in Los Angeles County. Meanwhile, COVID hospitalizations are breaking records in six California counties and are increasing statewide, though the average number of daily deaths is decreasing statewide.

Reading through all these stories and combing through the dizzying array of data points that at times seem to contradict each other, it’s difficult to know whether the state is gaining or losing ground in its battle against COVID-19. Further complicating matters, each county is faring differently as it works to tamp down the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant by increasing vaccination rates — an effort that could be turbocharged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday granting full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and older.

The toll that California’s constantly fluctuating fourth coronavirus wave is taking on residents is evident in the sharp uptick of Bay Area diners cancelling restaurant reservations and asymptomatic residents rushing to Sacramento hospitals to get tested for COVID-19. Potentially exacerbating the confusion: mixed messages from public health experts.

Still, Swartzberg noted, that’s the nature of a pandemic: It ebbs and flows. “The problem we’ve had is that as we’ve watched it fall, we’ve let go of our precautions too soon.”

To make sense of what’s happening with COVID in California and to keep up with the latest developments, you can read CalMatters coverage.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 4,133,651 confirmed cases (+0.3% from previous day) and 64,694 deaths (+0% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 46,145,367 vaccine doses, and 65.5% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. A bevy of recall news

Recall candidate Kevin Paffrath at a campaign event. Photo courtesy of Meet Kevin Paffrath for Governor of California
Recall candidate Kevin Paffrath at a campaign event. Photo courtesy of Meet Kevin Paffrath for Governor of California

​​Tonight, four of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top challengers in the Sept. 14 recall election will gather for the fourth recall debate — and for the first time, there will be a Democrat on the stage: Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old real estate broker and investor with 1.7 million YouTube subscribers. To learn more about the platform of the candidate who calls himself a “JFK-style Democrat,” check out the five takeaways CalMatters’ Ben Christopher compiled from CalMatters’ nearly 90-minute interview with Paffrath — and make sure to watch the video, too.

Paffrath’s mere presence complicates Newsom’s efforts to paint the recall as a Republican-led power grab — and other GOP candidates appear to be trying to fracture the Democratic coalition by enlisting the support of non-establishment activists. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Tuesday that he had secured the endorsement of Michael Shellenberger, an environmental advocate who isn’t currently registered with either major party but ran for governor in 2018 as a Democrat. Meanwhile, conservative talk show host and recall frontrunner Larry Elder is preparing to run statewide ads featuring an endorsement from Gloria Romero, a registered Democrat, former state lawmaker and longtime charter school advocate. 

In other endorsement news: Former Sacramento-area U.S. Rep. Doug Ose on Tuesday made his first public appearance since the heart attack that ended his gubernatorial campaign to announce his backing of Kevin Kiley. And Newsom held a campaign call with Black Democratic leaders to rally against Elder.

2. New law disrupts school reopenings

Kayden Christiansen and his mother Heather Christiansen photographed at their home in Simi Valley on August 24, 2021. Kayden who is in 5th grade was in quarantine for 10 days. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
Kayden Christiansen, who was in quarantine for 10 days, and his mother Heather Christiansen, at their home in Simi Valley on August 24, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

California kids are heading back to school — only for some to turn around and go home after testing positive for COVID-19 or coming into contact with someone who did. The mandatory 10-day quarantines are exposing the holes in a new state law intended to provide kids with an improved remote learning experience. Despite record levels of funding, schools say they’re unable to hire the teachers required to provide independent study for quarantined students. As a result, some students are going for days without learning — and schools are at risk of losing state funding for the days they’re technically “absent,” CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports. Meanwhile, the number of kids who want to learn from home long-term is rising as the highly transmissible delta variant rages, further exacerbating the teacher shortage. The challenges are so numerous that lawmakers will soon vote on a budget “clean-up” bill to revise the legislation Newsom signed less than two months ago.

Around 6,500 students missed one or more days during the first week of school in Los Angeles Unified School District due to positive coronavirus cases, meaning about 1 in every 700 students was in isolation or quarantine, the Los Angeles Times reports. Meanwhile, more than a dozen reported coronavirus cases in Oakland Unified schools turned out to be false positives — meaning some students were unnecessarily quarantined.

3. State auditor critiques homeless response

Rafael Suarez checks for fleas on his dog, Sassy, outside of the camper he lives in on July 9, 2021. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
Rafael Suarez checks for fleas on his dog, Sassy, outside of the camper he lives in on July 9, 2021. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

Homelessness is a central point of contention in the recall, with Republican challengers arguing that homelessness has gotten worse under Newsom while the governor touts his pandemic programs to get Californians off the street. But Newsom’s plan to “functionally end family homelessness within five years” took a hit on Tuesday, when State Auditor Elaine Howle released a blistering report into a key agency’s management of $316 million in federal relief funds for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Among Howle’s findings about the California Department of Housing and Community Development:

  • It was so slow to distribute money that many local agencies had to wait seven months for the first round of funding and 11 months for the second.
  • Because of the delays, California may not be able to use all the money by the September 2022 deadline.
  • It took the department 14 months to hire a contractor to help manage the funds, and it doesn’t yet have plans to track or evaluate the contractor’s work.
  • The department isn’t measuring whether the programs it’s funding are effective at reducing homelessness.

“One of the department’s objectives is to lead efforts to end, rather than manage, homelessness,” Howle wrote. But the audit’s findings “raise serious concerns about its ability to provide the leadership the state needs to address its ongoing homelessness crisis.”

The department said it “strongly disagrees” with the audit — noting that it also led Newsom’s Project Homekey, which is now being used as a national model — but will nonetheless implement recommended reforms.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Larry Elder’s critics may be helping him succeed.

Democrats behind California’s structural racism: They’ve created policies that increase both the cost of living and the discriminatory effects on those who can least afford it, writes Lloyd Leighton, chairman of the Sutter County Republican Party.

Newsom out of sync with Biden on energy: California needs to embrace a sensible and sustainable energy future that includes workers in the oil and gas industry, argues Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president and CEO of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Political will needed for affordable housing: You cannot have affordably priced housing in California without government subsidies, writes Robert Taylor of the California Building Industry Association of the Greater Valley.

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Other things worth your time

Biden approves wildfire disaster declaration in California. // Los Angeles Times

Gavin Newsom’s grassroots work against recall showing success — but it’s still early. // San Francisco Chronicle

How Larry Elder became a frontrunner in California’s governor race. // New York Times

Torrance police find 300 recall ballots in suspect’s car along with gun, drugs. // Los Angeles Times

Unmasked anti-vaccine protesters storm San Jose council meeting. // San Francisco Chronicle

As lawmakers indefinitely postpone wildfire hearing, internal emails reveal Cal Fire chief ordered key document pulled from the internet. // CapRadio

In Gold Country, PG&E fire victims have waited 6 years for payment. // San Francisco Chronicle

Wildfires are ravaging California forests set aside to soak up greenhouse gases. // New York Times

Going up: Your electric bill. Going down: Wildfire risk? // Orange County Register

Why 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste is buried on a popular California beach. // The Guardian

Oakland’s illegal trash-dumping crisis is worse than ever. Here’s why. // San Francisco Chronicle

State orders recall of raw goat milk from farm near Modesto. // Modesto Bee

College student life is back — with many COVID restrictions. // Los Angeles Times

California congressional offices inundated with thousands of calls to help Afghan refugees. // Sacramento Bee

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...