In summary

The omicron variant is spreading across California as it outpaces COVID vaccinations, forcing some UC campuses to return to online classes.

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It’s somehow fitting that on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the news again Tuesday.  

Because of the highly-contagious omicron variant, it’s looking like another long, dark winter. Less than a month after it was discovered, omicron comprised nearly three-fourths of U.S. cases last week. It’s spreading far faster than vaccinations can keep up, forcing pro and college teams to cancel games, Broadway to go dark and officials to consider more mandates and restrictions. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that he plans to announce details today of a requirement that all California healthcare workers get booster shots. 

  • Newsom: “With Omicron on the rise, we’re taking immediate actions to protect Californians and ensure our hospitals are prepared.”

The very first confirmed U.S. case was a traveler who returned to San Francisco and tested positive on Nov. 29. Since then, California’s positivity rate has been ticking up, to 3% on Monday. Sacramento County public health officials on Tuesday announced the county’s first two omicron cases. Marin County officials suspect omicron in an outbreak of at least 28 cases after a Dec. 11 holiday party in Larkspur.

The entire state is back under an indoor mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status, through Jan. 15, with similar rules continuing at public and private workplaces through mid-April. So far, there’s no state-imposed shutdown again. 

How hard the winter omicron-fueled surge hits where you live will likely depend on how many in the community are vaccinated. Similar to the delta variant surge earlier this year, that could mean a relatively small increase in hospitalizations in the San Francisco area, a larger jump in  Los Angeles County and the biggest increase in the Central Valley, Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco, told the Los Angeles Times

In California, 26.5 million have been fully vaccinated, 70% of residents, and another 3.1 million, or 8%, have received one dose, according to state figures. But that means more than 1 in 5 Californians are completely unvaccinated.  

While the experts don’t know yet whether this latest variant causes more or less severe illness, scientists say the vaccinated will probably need a booster shot to avoid getting infected. About  8.7 million Californians have received booster shots. While 12% of all California COVID deaths happened in nursing homes, only 47% of residents of long-term care facilities have been boosted, Capital and Main reports

Vaccination rates are lower for Black and Latino Californians. While 31.3% of whites are not vaccinated, 42% of Blacks and 40% of Latinos are not yet vaccinated.  

So the California Department of Public Health is enlisting the help of celebrities, including Lalo Alcaraz, a Los Angeles artist and cartoonist, and actor Jaleel White, best known as Steve Urkel on the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters.” 

  • White: “No one should be shamed or condemned for being hesitant and this is exactly why I want to share the story of how I came to be vaccinated….Helping people get the facts, with understanding for their personal experiences, and doing that with grace, is how we are going to get through this together.”

These outreach efforts may not be as exciting as California’s $116.5 million vax for cash lottery earlier this year, complete with glitzy game show-style events hosted by Newsom. 

But just maybe, they’ll be more effective. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden on Tuesday delivered his latest plea to the unvaccinated — “You’re putting others at risk” — and warning: Omicron is “serious and potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people.”

Biden announced plans to deploy thousands more soldiers and medical personnel to beleaguered hospitals, prepare shipments of protective gear to hard-hit places and increase  vaccination and testing sites.

The newest proposal: Stockpiling 500 million at-home quick testing kits, and allowing people to order them online for free starting in January. Some schools, including in Marin County and San Diego, have sent test kits home with students. With holiday gatherings, however, there’s already a shortage

As Biden spoke, Newsom tweeted his thanks: “The pathway forward is clear: Get vaccinated. Get boosted.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 4,943,227 confirmed cases (+ 0.16% from previous day) and 75,164 deaths (+ 0.01% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 62,956,525 vaccine doses, and 70.3% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Back to (online) campus

Students study outdoors in Muir Quad at UC San Diego on Feb. 17, 2021. A sign outlines the correct hand-washing procedures to fight COVID-19. Photo by Arlene Banuelos for CalMatters

From CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn:

It’s a case of unwelcome déjà vu for California higher education as once again college campuses are shifting to online instruction because of COVID-19 worries.

Tuesday morning, University of California President Michael Drake told leaders of the 10-campus system that they can pivot from in-person to fully online instruction as classes resume in January after winter break. By Tuesday night, all seven undergraduate campuses on the quarter system said they will move to remote-only instruction when winter term begins Jan. 3 — a sudden change for students and heavy lift for some faculty during what’s supposed to be their time off. UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz told students and employees that classes will be remote the first two weeks, while UC Davis announced that the first week of classes will be online.

Drake cited discussions with UC officials and public health experts — and concerns about the fast-spreading omicron variant and holiday travel — for his decision. Whether campuses decide to shift to online or not, they “should incorporate a test, sequester, and retest model as described in the UC Health Coordinating Committee’s guidance for returning students,” he wrote.

  • UC President Michael Drake: “Large, congregant events, particularly indoors, should be avoided in the opening weeks of your winter quarter or spring semester.”

The news follows several days of uncertainty after Stanford University joined several other colleges and said it was holding classes online for the start of its winter term late last week. Before Drake’s letter, CalMatters surveyed UC campuses about their January plans. Seven — including campuses that announced changes — initially indicated they were planning to keep classes largely in-person. But by Monday, signs were already pointing to a possible online pivot when the UC Board of Regents decided to hold its planned in-person January meeting virtually instead

Still, the higher-ed landscape is diverse, and when classes resume may be a factor. UC Berkeley reiterated Tuesday that it’s planning to hold classes largely in person. Berkeley – like the nine Cal State campuses CalMatters surveyed and heard back from since last week – are on the semester system, so classes don’t resume until Jan. 18 or later. None of those Cal States were planning a fully remote start. Not negotiable at the UC? A booster shot, Drake said, citing existing university policy.

2. Repercussions of redistricting

A redistricting illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

California politicians wasted no time in staking claim to the new election districts approved by the state’s independent commission late Monday night.

Among the announcements Tuesday: Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento declared that she will run next year in the new 7th Congressional District. It also includes fellow Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, who within hours said he would follow many of his constituents into the new 6th District. Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin announced that he plans to run in the new 3rd District, if, as he expects, fellow Republican Tom McClintock of Elk Grove seeks re-election in the 5th District, just to the south. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove said he will seek re-election in the new 8th District, which includes Contra Costa and Solano counties. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a Concord Democrat, will run in the neighboring 10th.

In Southern California, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter said she’ll run in a bluer district that includes her hometown of Irvine. Republican Rep. Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita, who now represents the 25th District, said he’ll run in the new 27th.

  • Rep. Mike Garcia, a Santa Clarita Republican: ”I’m looking forward to running and winning in 2022, and I don’t envy anyone running against me and my team.”

Get the full picture of the new districts from CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal, plus interactive maps of congressional districts from Jeremia Kimelman. 

Also Tuesday, given the amount of flak targeting the commission and its work, California Common Cause — which pushed voters to create the independent panel starting with a 2008 ballot measure — put out a defense: “While the process was at times messy, it was an exercise in democracy done in public,” with 150 meetings and 30,000 pieces of public input. 

  • Jonathan Mehta Stein, Common Cause executive director: “While the Commission has received its share of criticism, and California Common Cause is committed to examining process improvements for the 2031 Commission, this group of Commissioners must be heralded for running an inclusive and highly participatory redistricting process that put the California public in the driver’s seat.”   

New protections for garment workers

Nigel Duara gives a quick explainer of California’s new safeguards for garment workers in a “New law in a minute” video produced by Byrhonda Lyons.

YouTube video

2021 economy stories you should know

Samuel Dissels cleans a table at Oyo restaurant’s newly built outdoor dining area in Pleasanton on Dec. 3, 2020. Photo by Doug Duran, Bay Area News Group

A lot happened this year in the California economy and on inequality. Here’s a look back at some of the most significant developments, as reported by CalMatters’ Grace Gedye.

California dug itself out of the depths of the COVID-19 recession. By November, it had regained nearly 70% of the 2.7 million jobs lost in the early months of the pandemic.

But the economy did not completely “roar back.” The state’s November unemployment rate of 7.5% was tied for the nation’s highest, and was far higher than the U.S. average of 4.8%. That’s 1.4 million Californians out of work and looking, and the reasons for the stubborn joblessness  are many. And workforce participation for women with young children remains about 7% lower than before the pandemic, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

California wasn’t immune from the “Great Resignation,” either. A record number of workers left their jobs and some employers — particularly in retail and hospitality — struggled to fill openings, even with beefed-up benefits and increased pay.

The state was also at the center of supply chain bottlenecks. With record numbers of container ships idling off the coast near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed state agencies to identify ways to break the logjam as business groups called on him to roll back regulations and suspend laws.

  • State Sen. Nancy Skinner, chairperson of the Senate Budget Committee: “I’m just very proud that we are a state that reflects the type of values that recognizes that so many people were disproportionately hurt by this pandemic.” 

Meanwhile, state and federal pandemic relief aid buoyed workers and businesses. In July, the “California Comeback Plan” provided $600 stimulus checks for millions of low- and moderate-income Californians. The administration also set aside $4 billion for grants of $5,000 to $25,000 for small businesses.

Despite that assistance, California’s poverty rate, already the highest in the nation before COVID-19, is likely to have worsened in 2021. In the latest data, more than a third of Californians continued to live in or near poverty. Nearly half of California children participate in the state’s two biggest assistance programs, CalFresh and CalWORKs. But In March, Congress approved a $1.9 trillion relief package that included an expanded child tax credit that could help cut child poverty in California by half.

Check out the full CalMatters Primer, with everything you need to know and might have missed about California policy and politics in 2021.

Here’s your primer: What California state government has been up to in 2021

History will remember 2021 as the year when a windfall of governmentspending sought to address years of inequality, poverty and a growingpopulation left behind. Trillions of dollars were spent by the federal government, but California’s state government, facing the nation’s highest poverty rate, also saw an unprecedented budget surplus that the state’s supermajority Democrats used…

And here are some economy stories to watch for in 2022:

Other things worth your time

San Jose wants to require employees to get COVID boosters // Los Angeles Times

California EDD employee faces prison for unemployment fraud // The Sacramento Bee

California man who threatened politicians, journalists sentenced to 3 years in prison // Los Angeles Times

Large-capacity gun magazine law on pause while Supreme Court petitioned // The San Diego Union-Tribune

Private equity-backed rail firm has ally in state Treasurer Fiona Ma // Bloomberg

Aliso Canyon gas leak evidence was stolen, Halliburton says // Los Angeles Times

Disabled, homeless advocates protest city policies // The San Diego Union-Tribune

A deputy showed images in a bar of Kobe Bryant’s body. Vanessa Bryant now wants justice. // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow.

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Foon Rhee is deputy editor for CalMatters who works with reporters covering the state Capitol and housing. After graduating from Duke University, he covered local and state government for The Charlotte...