In summary

State and local officials are struggling to find the best California COVID policies to get through the pandemic and restore the economy.

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California is facing a COVID conundrum: Are its policies helping or hindering its efforts to emerge from the pandemic?

Take schools. As CalMatters’ Joe Hong and Elizabeth Aguilera report, state lawmakers are gearing up for a massive fight over controversial vaccine proposals — including one that would eliminate the personal belief exemption in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate and require all K-12 kids to get the shot by Jan. 1, 2023.

Yet a steady stream of campuses — already confronting rapidly declining enrollment — are delaying or eliminating their mandates to avoid forcing thousands of noncompliant students into distance learning or into different districts altogether.

  • On Wednesday, Sacramento City Unified became the latest district to postpone its Jan. 31 vaccination deadline — the result of 44% of eligible students failing to report at least partial inoculation.
  • Also Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board endorsed increasing pediatric vaccination but declared “it goes too far to require a vaccine that has not been fully approved” when there isn’t “clear evidence that current vaccination rates among students are resulting in significant numbers of hospitalizations or deaths.”

At the same time, many teachers and students say stricter protections are needed: The West Contra Costa teachers union is threatening to go on strike if the district doesn’t strengthen COVID safety measures by Friday, and a strike was averted this week in Oakland after the teachers union and district reached their 10th safety agreement of the pandemic.

Persistent worker shortages exacerbated by sickness, confusing quarantine and isolation rules, subpar working conditions, vaccine mandates and burnout have also sparked fierce debate over what constitutes effective COVID policy.

“Can we really do this if we don’t have the people?” Farrah McDaid Ting, a senior legislative representative with the California State Association of Counties, asked Manuela. “I think there could be a real limitation.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 7,569,687 confirmed cases (+1.2% from previous day) and 78,316 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 68,875,337 vaccine doses, and 72.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Is Kruger headed to U.S. Supreme Court?

Leondra Kruger, left, is sworn in as an associate justice to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Jerry Brown during an inauguration ceremony in Sacramento on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo
Leondra Kruger, left, is sworn in as a California Supreme Court associate justice by then-Gov. Jerry Brown on Jan. 5, 2015. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

With one Californian — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — set to retire from the nation’s highest court at the end of the current term, according to a slew of Wednesday reports, could another Californian replace him? President Joe Biden pledged while running for office to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is said to be on his shortlist. Kruger, 45, is familiar with the nation’s highest court: She clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and argued 12 cases in front of the court while working in the Obama administration’s Office of the Solicitor General. Appointed to the bench by former Gov. Jerry Brown, Kruger has gained a reputation for approaching cases more conservatively than her fellow Democratic justices.

  • Kruger told the Los Angeles Times in 2018: “My approach reflects the fact that we operate in a system of precedent. I aim to perform my job in a way that enhances the predictability and stability of the law and public confidence and trust in the work of the courts.”

The frontrunner for the position, however, is thought to be federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. But even if Kruger isn’t chosen as the nation’s next Supreme Court justice, California will play an outsized role in determining who is. Both Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold the confirmation hearings for Biden’s nominee. And should the Senate split in a 50-50 vote, Vice President Kamala Harris will be the tiebreaker.

2. Health care affordability emerges as key issue

Dr. Shura Alexis Moreno sees a patient at Gabriel Medical Center in East Los Angeles on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Jessica Pons for CalMatters
Dr. Shura Alexis Moreno sees a patient at Gabriel Medical Center in East Los Angeles on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Jessica Pons for CalMatters

More than 8 in 10 Californians say it is “extremely” or “very” important for Newsom and the state Legislature to work on making health care more affordable this year, according to a statewide survey released this morning by the California Health Care Foundation and NORC at the University of Chicago. The poll — which was conducted before omicron started sweeping the state — also found that 51% of Californians worry about affording monthly health insurance premiums and 49% about paying for prescription drugs.

  • Timing is everything: The findings come ahead of a do-or-die vote — either today or Monday — on a controversial proposal to create a state-funded single-payer health care system.
  • Single-payer is also an election issue: The California Nurses Association — the single-payer proposal’s powerful backer — announced Wednesday its sole endorsement of Democratic Assemblymember Marc Levine of San Rafael for state insurance commissioner. That’s a sharp dig at Democratic incumbent Ricardo Lara, who on Monday professed his “strong support” for the single-payer proposal in a letter to its author, Democratic Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose.
  • Other health care news: Covered California, the state’s health insurance marketplace, announced Tuesday that a record 1.8 million people have signed up for coverage ahead of the Jan. 31 open-enrollment deadline — and noted that a whopping two-thirds of them can get coverage for $10 or less a month.

3. Will Newsom’s college plans make the cut?

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the California Economic Summit in Monterey on Nov. 9, 2021. AP Photo/Nic Coury
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the California Economic Summit in Monterey on Nov. 9, 2021. Photo by Nic Coury, AP Photo

From CalMatters higher-education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn: There’s a budgetary turf war brewing over the future of higher education in California.

In a Wednesday report, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office roasted Newsom’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting in July, arguing that his higher-education funding plan has the “fundamental problem of sidestepping the legislative branch of government.” Beyond that, the report found that Newsom’s “list of expectations is long, has odd inconsistencies across the segments, is missing key cost estimates, and lacks enforcement mechanisms.” And it dings the governor’s plan on a number of other fronts, including:

  • No extra funding to help the UC, Cal State and community colleges tackle rising pension costs.
  • Shortchanging the Cal States by proposing that the system increase in-state enrollment, among other commitments, but providing less money than needed to pay for all those new students and other programs.
  • Linking promises of more state money to 55 deliverables, yet creating no “specific repercussions” if the goals aren’t met.
  • And having “odd inconsistencies,” such as expecting the UCs to “eliminate textbook costs for all lower-division undergraduate courses” by 2025-26 but having no such expectation for community colleges.

The report also observes that Newsom’s budget blueprint gives the UC more money than its operations technically require because the system approved multiple years of tuition hikes that will bring in more revenue.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Another heated confrontation over vaccines is brewing in California’s Capitol — and once again, Newsom is trying to straddle the fence.

California should create a health technology assessment: We could reduce health care spending by about $30 billion annually without harming patient outcomes, but we don’t know where or how to cut because California doesn’t review the efficacy of its programs, argue Darius Lakdawalla of the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics and Dana Goldman, dean of the USC Price School of Public Policy.

A more successful way to house the homeless: True Housing First programs provide homes without requiring sobriety or treatment, and — crucially — offer robust support and treatment services tailored to the individual, writes Sam Tsemberis of Pathways Housing First Institute.

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Other things worth your time

Gun rights group sues city of San Jose over new liability law. // Associated Press

Guns stolen from rail cars spark LAPD concern. // Los Angeles Times

San Francisco gun violence rose last year, with shootings up 33%. // San Francisco Chronicle

Why was a suicidal CHP officer given back his gun? // Sacramento Bee

State to investigate fatal shooting of suspected fentanyl dealer by Riverside County gang officers. // Los Angeles Times

City is allowing people to use drugs inside new Tenderloin treatment linkage center. // San Francisco Chronicle

Second Bakersfield baby overdoses on fentanyl in a week. // KGET 17

AG Bonta says California could receive more than $2 billion from massive national opioid settlement. // San Francisco Chronicle

California State University prepares to drop SATs and ACTs. // Associated Press

Amazon paid for a California high school course. Here’s what they teach. // Vice

COVID blamed as fewer California high schoolers file FAFSA applications. // EdSource

Bill would require California to pay for school buses, transit passes. // Mercury News

What the federal ‘No Surprises Act’ means in California. // California Healthline

Tenants will get 10-day warning period before eviction notices under new city law. Will landlords sue? // San Francisco Chronicle

1 in 11 California homeowners struggle to pay mortgage. // Southern California News Group

Homeless camp near SoFi cleared as Super Bowl draws near. // KTLA

Los Angeles City Council approves phaseout of oil drilling. // Associated Press

The climate solution in California’s compost and crops. // The Verge

Evacuations lifted for blaze on California’s Big Sur coast. // Associated Press

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...