As concern over the omicron variant mounts in California — with the state’s second case confirmed Thursday in Los Angeles County — another public health crisis is lurking in plain sight: the drug epidemic.

A jaw-dropping report released Wednesday by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy found that nearly 1,500 people, the vast majority believed to be homeless, died on the streets of Los Angeles during the pandemic — 40% because of a drug or alcohol overdose. The staggering number is almost certainly an undercount, experts say.

Also Wednesday, the California Peace Coalition — a group of parents whose kids are addicted to or have died from fentanyl or other illicit drugs — held a die-in protest in the Tenderloin, calling on the state and San Francisco to shut down open-air drug markets, prosecute dealers, and place their kids in mandatory treatment. And they slammed San Francisco leaders for their response to a drug epidemic that killed 712 city residents in 2020 — nearly triple the amount of people who lost their lives to COVID-19.

  • The coalition: “Harm reduction initiatives like safe consumption sites and the widespread use of Narcan can’t solve the problem and haven’t been able to do so.”

The news comes about two weeks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 100,000 Americans — including about 10,000 in California — died of drug overdoses during the year-long period that ended April 2021. That’s a record high and a nearly 29% increase from the year before. Almost 64% of deaths were caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Meanwhile, meth overdose deaths skyrocketed 48%. A recent CNN investigation found that more Fresno County residents died of meth overdoses in 2020 than homicides or suicides; one- or two-vehicle crashes; and fire, falls and drowning combined.

A heart-rending, stunning Thursday story from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight put the human toll of California’s drug crisis — and the inadequate political response that appears to be fueling it — into painfully clear focus. In May, Laurie Steves — who had already lost one of her children to a fentanyl and ketamine overdose — moved to San Francisco to try to wrest her 34-year-old daughter, Jessica DiDia, from the grasp of fentanyl and the Tenderloin. She did not succeed.

  • Jessica: “The city is way too easy for people with nothing to get by. That’s why I’m still here nine years later. You get by with doing drugs and suffer no consequences. I like it here.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 4,815,277 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 73,919 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 58,802,815 vaccine doses, and 67.9% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Big improvement in jobless claims

A job posting on the window of a retail store looking for seasonal workers at a shopping mall in Carlsbad on Nov. 9, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A job posting on a retail store window in Carlsbad on Nov. 9, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

In a spot of bright news, California’s new jobless claims have dropped to their lowest level since the start of the pandemic, with about 48,000 residents filing new claims for the week ending Nov. 27, according to federal data released Thursday. That’s a decrease of nearly 5,000 from the week before — but California still accounts for a whopping 22% of the nation’s unemployment claims, signaling the uncertain nature of its economic recovery. And the omicron variant appears likely to inject even more uncertainty: On Thursday, Google announced that it will no longer require employees to return to the office on Jan. 10, joining a host of other Bay Area tech companies pushing back planned reopenings due to omicron. Other companies are cancelling business conferences and international gatherings, and the airline industry is preparing for a downturn in business after rebounding over Thanksgiving. Still, some appear optimistic about the future of in-person work: Facebook parent company Meta just snatched up nearly 720,000 square feet of space in Sunnyvale — the country’s biggest office lease of the year.

2. State: Crack down on crime ASAP

The windows of the Valentino store in Union Square in San Francisco were boarded up on Nov. 25, 2021. Videos on social media showed masked people running with goods from several high-end retailers in the storied shopping area. Photo by Samuel Rigelhaupt / Sipa USA
The boarded-up windows of the Valentino store in Union Square in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2021. Photo by Samuel Rigelhaupt, Sipa USA

Today, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the sentencing of several defendants in an organized retail theft ring in the Bay Area — and said the arrests in September led to the recovery of $8 million in stolen merchandise from CVS, Target, Walgreens and others. The news follows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Wednesday exhortation for state and local leaders to prosecute shoplifters under existing law. And it appears that many are already doing so: A Costa Mesa woman was arrested Wednesday for allegedly stealing more than $300,000 worth of products from high-end retail stores, while Los Angeles police on Thursday announced the arrests of 14 suspects in smash-and-grab robberies there and two Sacramento men were convicted for stealing dozens of catalytic converters from cars in eight Northern California counties. Meanwhile, Beverly Hills police on Thursday arrested a 29-year-old Los Angeles man suspected of fatally shooting Jacqueline Avant — a philanthropist, wife of music legend Clarence Avant and mother-in-law of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos — in her home on Wednesday.

Still, the disturbing burglaries continue: Police are searching for a man dubbed the “snake burglar” who appears to have robbed several Riverside businesses by breaking in and slithering around on his belly. And Oakland is so desperate to beef up its police force that one city councilmember has proposed recruiting officers from other departments by offering them $50,000 signing bonuses.

3. Scandals rock Los Angeles

Los Angeles City Hall on August 7, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Los Angeles City Hall on Aug. 7, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Speaking of crime, the city of Los Angeles — which is still reeling from Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas’s recent suspension following federal bribery charges — is facing a slew of new scandals. They include:

  • An ongoing federal investigation into a billing debacle at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the state’s largest public utility. On Monday, lawyer Paul Paradis — hired by City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office in 2014 to represent the city in lawsuits filed by ratepayers challenging their massively overinflated bills — pled guilty to accepting nearly $2.2 million in a kickback scheme that involved bribing high-ranking LADWP officials appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti. Now both Feuer — who’s running for mayor in 2022 — and Garcetti — awaiting confirmation as the next U.S. ambassador to India — are facing heightened scrutiny.
  • Garcetti’s alleged knowledge that his former top aide, Rick Jacobs, was a serial sexual harasser, according to a new investigation from New York Magazine. The mayor, however, testified under oath that he wasn’t aware of any of the allegations against Jacobs.
  • An internal investigation into two members of Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore’s security detail, who detained someone in Marseille, France after a high-ranking commander’s wife wrongly alleged that a man who bumped into her in the street had stolen her cell phone. The officers, who were in France for a meeting on security preparations for the summer Olympics, detained the man despite lacking the power to make arrests in foreign countries.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The U.S. Supreme Court may have the final word on one of California’s signature gun laws.

California must prioritize public safety: To protect the public and retailers, we must bring some consequences back into the criminal justice system, argues Assemblymember Vince Fong, a Bakersfield Republican.

Here’s how California should spend its budget surplus: The extra money should go toward the state’s single most pressing and potentially catastrophic problem — water, writes Roger Miller, a retired administrator for Southern California Edison.

Other things worth your time

GOP official files legal challenge in California redistricting effort. // CalMatters

Orange County education board sues Newsom over COVID state of emergency. // Los Angeles Times

Uber agrees to pay $9 million California sexual assault settlement. // Los Angeles Times

California will make PG&E pay $125 million for 2019 Kincade Fire. // San Francisco Chronicle

California prison system let sergeant resign, leaving door open to re-hire, after allegedly soliciting teen for sex. // Mercury News

‘Why does Mater Dei protect bullies?’ A school and Orange County diocese have lots to answer for. // Los Angeles Times

California high school’s plans for all-gender locker rooms causes concern for some. // Mercury News

California to spend nearly $100M to fortify state Capitol. // San Francisco Chronicle

California failed to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke under Biden’s new OSHA chief. // KQED

Thousands of California farmworkers get pay raises thanks to a lawsuit. // CalMatters

Central Valley coalition suing the EPA over clean air failures. // Capital & Main

The Twitter wildfire watcher who tracks California’s blazes. // Wired

Illegal marijuana farms pose deadly risks in California’s national forests. // NBC News

How Gavin Newsom’s dyslexia has shaped him as governor. // Sacramento Bee

Why California is awesome. // 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...