In summary

State health officials extend indoor mask mandate through Feb. 15, but say the size of California COVID hospitalization increase is unclear.

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Just how serious is California’s COVID-19 situation?

On the one hand, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health official, on Wednesday extended California’s indoor mask mandate — which was set to run through Jan. 15 — through at least Feb. 15, citing a surge in COVID cases that has pushed the state’s test positivity rate to a whopping 21.3%.

On the other hand, Ghaly acknowledged that the state lacks critical data on just how severely the virus, especially the omicron variant, is affecting Californians. He noted that around 8,000 of the state’s approximately 51,000 hospital patients on Wednesday morning had tested positive for COVID. But, Ghaly said, it’s unclear how many of those patients were hospitalized because of COVID versus how many were admitted for different reasons and ended up incidentally having COVID.

  • Ghaly: “That distinction … is really important and helps us not only help manage the staffing challenges within some of the hospitals, but also project out the need for additional ICU capacity. … And as we see an increasing number of fully vaccinated individuals, boosted individuals, admitted to the hospital with incidental COVID … I think we’re starting to see a sort of different approach to that.”

Indeed, as of Tuesday, roughly two-thirds of COVID-positive patients at hospitals run by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Services were admitted for something other than the virus. Marin County hospitals on Monday had a near-record high of 19 COVID patients — but at least 42% were incidental cases. And Berkeley is experiencing a “phenomenal” surge in cases, but only three residents at minimum have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the past month.

Hospitalization data may be opaque, but staff shortages are clear. Thousands of police officers, firefighters and paramedics are in quarantine, straining critical public safety services. Unprecedented numbers of health care workers have been sidelined after testing positive for the virus, prompting some hospital departments to operate at half capacity and others to postpone elective surgeries. Ghaly said California has brought in more than 1,800 out-of-state health care workers to fill gaps at more than 150 facilities and is working to hire even more.

Although Ghaly emphasized that both he and Gov. Gavin Newsom don’t foresee future COVID-related shutdowns, they’re happening anyway. Courtrooms up and down the state are temporarily suspending jury trials, as CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports. The Los Angeles City Council has returned to virtual meetings, and Newsom cleared the way for state agencies to do the same in a Wednesday executive order. Some Sacramento restaurants are closing, and on Wednesday the Grammy Awards ceremony was postponed indefinitely.

But the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, got an implicit go-ahead from Ghaly.

  • Ghaly: “I think Californians are excited to see that event occur, and the work is to make sure that as it is moving forward and planned, that the mitigation strategies that create safety around that event are in place.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 5,480,265 confirmed cases (+1% from previous day) and 76,054 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 65,386,357 vaccine doses, and 71.3% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Staff shortages hit schools hard

A new classroom at Burnt Ranch Elementary School in Trinity County on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo by Dave Woody for CalMatters

California schools are also buckling under the pressure of omicron and pervasive staff shortages. West Contra Costa Unified Superintendent Chris Hurst announced Wednesday that the district’s schools will close Friday and Monday due to “the immense strain” caused by “the virus and a large number of absences.” A group of San Francisco teachers, meanwhile, is planning a “sickout” today to protest the district’s handling of the pandemic — a move that comes a day after nearly 700 teachers and aides called in absent. In San Diego Unified, a whopping 16% of students and 11% of educators were absent Monday.

The staff shortage has caught the attention of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who on Wednesday launched a workgroup “to brainstorm strategies that can help schools increase staff size” and proposed a bill to accelerate the credentialing of 10,000 school mental health counselors. Yet district officials say that unless state lawmakers act, rapidly declining public school enrollment could result in campuses losing millions of dollars — and lots of layoffs, CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports.

As schools are in turmoil, the leaders of the key education policy committees are all leaving the Legislature after this year. The latest: Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach, chairperson of the Assembly Education Committee, who announced Wednesday that he isn’t running again.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Former State Assembly, District 70 (Westminster)

2. Homeowners to get mortgage relief

Homes along Park Boulevard in the Ivy Hill neighborhood of Oakland on July 3, 2019. Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters
Homes along Park Boulevard in the Ivy Hill neighborhood of Oakland on July 3, 2019. Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters

From CalMatters housing reporter Manuela Tobias: In more positive pandemic news, California on Wednesday launched a program to help struggling homeowners pay their mortgages with $1 billion in federal relief funds. The program complements California’s efforts to help tenants stay housed: For nearly a year, the state has provided rent relief to more than 145,000 renter households using more than $5 billion in federal aid.

Homeowners that earn the median income for their county or less and experienced a COVID-related income loss can apply for as much as $80,000 in grants that don’t have to be paid back. The state hopes to help as many as 40,000 homeowners with the money. To be eligible, households must receive some other form of public assistance, spend more than 40% of their income on housing, or have been denied a loan modification. Homeowners can apply at

Eligible applications will be reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis, though 40% of the funds will be set aside for households in “socially disadvantaged” neighborhoods, as determined by the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.

3. FI$Cal remains far from complete

Image via iStock
Image via iStock

Move aside, EDD — there’s another outdated tech system in town. California won’t meet its June 2022 deadline to finish a $1 billion project to build a new state government financial system called FI$Cal — and it’s unclear when the project, which has stretched on for nearly two decades, will be completed, according to a scathing Tuesday report from the state auditor’s office. The latest delay — which includes a cost overrun of at least $6 million — will cause California to issue late financial statements for the third year in a row. That could result in a lower credit rating and higher borrowing costs, “affecting the state’s ability to pay for debt-financed projects such as schools and levees,” wrote Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden, who’s leading the agency until Newsom appoints outgoing auditor Elaine Howle’s replacement.

That’s not all: FI$Cal has had an employee vacancy rate above 15% for the past five years. And it’s postponed the development of certain key features, so even “when the project formally ends,” the state “will continue using its legacy system — a concerning fact given that one of the original goals of the project was to replace stand-alone systems with a single, integrated system,” Tilden wrote. He also noted the state “will incur significant expenses related to FI$Cal’s development long after the project’s official end date.”

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CalMatters commentary

Rebuild our decimated public health workforce: Newsom and state lawmakers can’t just manage this crisis — they need to build the framework that will prepare us for the next, argues Kim Saruwatari, president of the County Health Executives Association of California.

Farewell to a staple of Capitol news coverage: Room 1190 was a place where elected leaders were answerable to the public and where much of California’s political history was written, writes Kevin Riggs, a former KCRA-TV reporter.

Other things worth your time

Los Angeles County detects first ‘flurona’ case, a co-infection of flu, COVID. // Los Angeles Times

New effort aims to count all California homeless students. // EdSource

California sheriff’s office recruit, set to graduate next month, dies in freeway shooting. // NBC News

San Jose’s mayoral race is shaping up to be the most expensive in city history. // Mercury News

Supreme Court clears the way for thousands in back pay to San Francisco janitors who lost their jobs. // San Francisco Chronicle

The craft of California’s homeless job counselor. // Forbes

New Native American name proposed for California town of Squaw Valley. // San Francisco Chronicle

Revisiting Greenville, the mountain town destroyed by California’s largest wildfire. // The Guardian

The oldest aquarium fish in the world lives in San Francisco. She likes belly rubs. // San Francisco Chronicle

The bug that saved California. // Smithsonian Magazine

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...