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Piece by piece, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and state lawmakers are pulling down pillars of California’s emergency COVID response — even as the test positivity rate begins to tick back up.
The latest cornerstone to fall, less than two years after it was built: California’s $25 million COVID testing lab. As first reported by CBS Sacramento’s Julie Watts, the state Department of Public Health in a March 31 letter notified diagnostics company PerkinElmer that its no-bid contract worth as much as $1.7 billion to operate the Valencia Branch Laboratory would end on May 15, months ahead of schedule.
- The letter reads: “As highlighted by the California SMARTER plan, Antigen testing is now a major component of our ongoing testing response. … It is time for California to leverage the now sufficient laboratory capacity of the commercial market and the flexibility it brings.”
- What the letter didn’t mention: Problems so pervasive that they triggered both state and federal investigations and repeated warnings from state health officials that the Valencia Branch Laboratory could lose its license. Indeed, just 10 days before the state auto-renewed PerkinElmer’s year-long contract in October, inspectors were threatening sanctions for major deficiencies.
- It’s unclear what the state plans to do with the lab moving forward, CapRadio reports. PerkinElmer is preparing to lay off 75 California-based employees.
- Meanwhile, state lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill to protect from retaliation employees of certain companies awarded no-bid state contracts if they lodge complaints alleging “improper governmental activities.” The legislation was inspired by the whistleblowers who helped break the news of the Valencia Branch Laboratory’s deficiencies.
- The latest proposal to be tabled: Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento’s bill to withhold state funding from law enforcement agencies that oppose public health orders. Pan, who had already twice delayed a key hearing on the bill, cancelled a third slated for Wednesday.
- Pan: “Public health officers … are public safety officers whose work protects more lives than almost any other profession, although that work is often taken for granted.”
- Of the eight vaccine bills, three are tabled, two have yet to be scheduled for a hearing, one was significantly amended Tuesday and two face key hearings next week.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans Wednesday to appeal a Monday ruling that struck down the federal mask mandate on public transportation, California health care employees are seeking stronger protections in their own workplaces.
- Employees at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center picketed Wednesday over COVID workplace safety violations.
- Thousands of nurses at 18 Sutter Health facilities in Northern California staged a one-day strike Monday to protest what they said were inadequate staffing levels and pandemic protections; Sutter Health is blocking them from returning to work until Saturday morning.
- Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital nurses are slated to strike next Monday — a move that will cost them both pay and health care benefits.
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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 8,550,657 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 89,054 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
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Other stories you should know
1. Abortion emerges as campaign topic
Abortion continues to make headlines in California: On Wednesday, the day after hundreds of anti-abortion activists gathered at the state Capitol to protest a controversial bill, abortion rights advocates rallied behind Attorney General Rob Bonta, arguing this year’s election for California’s top cop could have massive implications for reproductive rights across the country.
- Jodi Hicks, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California: “Bonta and the California (Department of Justice) have consistently led the charge in courts across the country to defend our reproductive freedoms. In this critical moment, with attacks on abortion happening with a frequency and severity not seen for decades, we can’t afford to lose that leadership.”
- Bonta: “On so many legal issues, California law is America’s last line of defense. … At the Department of Justice, we have moved aggressively to defend abortion rights and to take on states who have limited abortion access. We are defending state laws supporting reproductive health care from right-wing attacks. And with voters’ support this year, we will keep up these important fights for four more years.”
- Find out what other attorney general candidates think about defending abortion rights in CalMatters’ Voter Guide.
But California hasn’t always been a bastion for reproductive rights. So how did it go from threatening abortion providers to positioning itself as a “sanctuary” for out-of-state women seeking abortions? And how is it poised to go even further? CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang breaks down everything you need to know in this comprehensive explainer.
2. Can a conservative win attorney general?
Abortion rights advocates aren’t the only ones who think a lot is riding on California’s attorney general race: Republicans and conservative independents are hoping it could be the one to finally break the California Democratic Party’s 16-year streak of winning every statewide elected office. Bonta’s three main opponents — independent Anne Marie Schubert and Republicans Nathan Hochman and Eric Early — have so far taken three different approaches to trying to unseat a sitting Democrat, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports. But, even with rising voter concern over crime and public safety, do Republican or no-party-preference candidates stand a chance in deep-blue California?
- Republican political consultant Mike Madrid: “It absolutely can be done. Has it been done before? No. … Bonta is particularly vulnerable at this point in time, but it’s still California.”
Your guide to the 2022 general election in California
3. Funding CA schools — and students
My takeaway from these two wonderful stories by CalMatters’ Elizabeth Aguilera and Mikhail Zinshteyn: California education finance is extremely complicated.
- Take the state’s plan to make early education more accessible by expanding transitional kindergarten to eventually include all 4-year-olds, with the first increase slated for this fall. As Elizabeth reports, despite the statewide mandate, 15% of school districts won’t receive additional dollars for the expansion. This has left some confronting tough budget decisions — while others say they don’t plan to add transitional kindergarten at all unless the state provides more funding.
- On the other end of the educational spectrum, California is on track to eliminate the need for its public university attendees to take out student loans. But, as Mikhail reports, state lawmakers and Newsom are grappling with competing proposals to overhaul California’s financial aid programs — raising questions about which students will be prioritized and how much such efforts will cost the state.
In other education news: California just got another task force! This one was launched Wednesday by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to “support and improve a systemwide approach to addressing the challenges” of California’s declining public school enrollment, which in 2021 dropped below 6 million students for the first time since the start of the century.
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Other things worth your time
Revised California bill would warn parents of gun danger. // Associated Press
Inflation brings California food banks a surge in first-time users on ‘razor’s edge.’ // Los Angeles Times
L.A. teacher shortage hits underserved schools hardest. // Los Angeles Times
Sonoma State president criticized CSU’s sex harassment response. Now she faces her own scandal. // Los Angeles Times
‘Defund’ candidates look to win seats at L.A. City Hall. // Los Angeles Times
Garcetti seeks more LAPD spending, boost in police overtime. // Los Angeles Times
Chesa Boudin recall campaign featured exceptionally high signature-gathering costs. // San Francisco Standard
Robbers make off with $20,000 in goods in Beverly Crest follow-home hold-up. // Los Angeles Times
L.A. County to settle for $1.85 million with whistleblower who alleged child welfare failures. // Los Angeles Times
In wake of Los Gatos ‘Party Mom’ case, council passes teen drinking ordinance. // Mercury News
L.A. County mental health chief resigning due to ‘health scare.’ // Los Angeles Times
FBI: Sacramento grocery owner charged in cocaine ring linked to Mexican cartel. // Sacramento Bee
ASAP Rocky arrested at LAX in connection with 2021 Hollywood shooting. // Los Angeles Times
7 Californians among those charged in $150 million COVID fraud. // Los Angeles Times
San Francisco Redistricting Task Force hit with lawsuit after missing its deadline. // San Francisco Chronicle
Realtor-affiliated group sues six cities for failing to adopt new housing plans. // Orange County Register
‘It’s not tenable’: California bill aims to erase permits delays that hold up housing projects. // San Francisco Chronicle
CalPERS plans to vote to replace Warren Buffett as Berkshire Hathaway’s chairman. // Wall Street Journal
State highlights insurance industry fossil fuel investments. // Los Angeles Times
How the supply chain crunch is hurting California’s farmers. // New York Times
After wildfires, scorched trees could disrupt California’s water supplies. // Associated Press
California to get heavy snow, rain from latest spring storm. // Associated Press
U.S. appeals court will not reconsider California net neutrality ruling. // Reuters
Wholesale cannabis prices collapse in California. // Sacramento Bee
Olive oil feud sparks larger debate about California’s brand. // Los Angeles Times
See you tomorrow.
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