California Throws More Money at COVID-19 Contact Tracing, But Is It Too Late?

One expert says that because omicron spreads so quickly, the millions spent on contact tracing could be better spent on more effective masks and more testing

Intensive contact tracing has helped contain COVID-19 outbreaks in some Asian countries. People test positive, they quarantine, and the folks they’ve had contact with are tracked down and asked to — or, in some nations, forced to — quarantine as well.

The U.S. has spent billions on contact tracing, and California alone will have spent $300 million on it through the next fiscal year. But researchers have found that 2 of 3 people with confirmed COVID-19 in the U.S. were either not reached or wouldn’t name contacts when interviewed, and public health authorities haven’t been able to monitor enough cases to stem the tide.

Now, as the pandemic enters its third year, the highly contagious omicron variant spreads like fire through dry grass. The incubation period can be as short as two days. The Centers for Disease Control recommends isolation for as little as five days. More people are testing at home — cases authorities don’t even count in their tallies — and some officials are throwing their hands up and suspending contact tracing.

“(T)he sheer speed of omicron’s transmission means people are exposed, infected and then contagious before the local health department can even identify an outbreak, much less get word to those who are exposed,” said officials in Oregon’s Multnomah County. “Because of that dynamic, contact tracing has become much less effective at lowering COVID-19’s risk, especially when cases are surging so high and when spending time in any indoor public space is essentially considered an exposure for anyone who isn’t up-to-date on their vaccines.”

Financial commitment waning

The financial commitment to contact tracing in California appears to be waning, but remains. The governor’s proposed budget shows that $258.3 million was spent on contact tracing over the first two years of the pandemic, with another $38.9 million going forward through the end of the next fiscal year.

The current and future spending breaks down to a projected $20.6 million this fiscal year, and $18.3 million next fiscal year, said Sonja Petek, principal fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“Contact tracing remains one of our many key tools in responding to the spread of COVID-19,” said a statement from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press office. “It’s also an important measure utilized in high-risk and congregate settings. Contact tracing assists with notifying exposed people for possible post-exposure treatment, testing, and quarantine in a timely manner.”

Overall, Newsom’s budget proposes $110 million to increase public health and humanitarian efforts at the California-Mexico border — including vaccinations, testing, isolation and quarantine services — “and expanded statewide contact tracing activities to help keep Californians safe and slow the spread.”

Currently, 268 state employees have been redirected to contact tracing efforts, the governor’s press office said. But experts aren’t sure the investment will bring great returns — at least not right now.

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

Newsom Budget: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The governor’s budget is a tale of the good, the bad and the ugly. We won’t see a real state budget until it emerges from the smoke-filled backroom following the May revise, but that didn’t stop Gov. Gavin Newsom from gleefully announcing to reporters how he would like to spend the windfall of other people’s money in a 400-page “summary” presented last week.

Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of his proposal.

The Good.

The governor’s budget puts more money into the reserve accounts, accelerates the paydown of state retirement liabilities, eliminates some budgetary debt, and allocates 86 percent of the discretionary surplus to one-time spending rather than ongoing liabilities that has so often happened in past years.

That’s good because the good times won’t go on forever. While the budget projects healthy returns for the next couple of years, it notes that “[s]tructural (non-pandemic) downside risks to the forecast remain, including the challenges of an aging population, declining migration flows, lower fertility rates, higher housing and living costs, increasing inequality, and stock market volatility.”

That’s important because the top 1% of California taxpayers pay more than 50% of the state’s income tax revenues. The state is currently riding high on the wealthy’s stock market gains, but as the Federal Reserve starts raising interest rates, the party could be coming to an end, and soon.

The Bad.

The bad is that an already bloated bureaucracy is getting even more bloated. Under the requirements of Proposition 98, increases in spending for public schools and community colleges will be dramatic and, as has been much talked about in these pages recently, California’s public schools aren’t hurting for cash as it is.

According to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, in inflation-adjusted constant dollars, per-pupil spending in California for public elementary and secondary schools in 2017-18, the most recent year for which statistics are available, was $13,129, the highest ever.

Under the governor’s budget, schools would see more than $20,000 per student, putting California in the top five of states in education spending – with little to show for it.

Even worse is the fact that there is little in the budget to address waste, fraud and abuse generally, not just in education. There is nothing to prevent another fiasco like we saw with the $20 billion in fraudulent claims paid by the Employment Development Department; still no accountability with the bullet train project and, in fact, the boondoggle is getting billions more.

Click here to read the full article at OC Register

More High-Speed Rail Money In Gavin Newsom’s CA budget. Here’s What It Would Do.

California’s high-speed rail would get about $4.2 billion toward finishing the central San Joaquin Valley portion in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed state spending plan, which he unveiled Monday.

The budget describes the money going to the rail from Merced to Bakersfield as advanced work, while dollars would also go to advanced planning for the entire project.

Originally planned from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the rail project has been pared down to connecting the Central Valley without the larger city destinations on either end. In his first state of the state in 2019, Newsom said the project didn’t have the pathway to the longer route.

The project has been criticized, including from Democrats like Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who called for the state to redirect high-speed rail money to urban transportation projects.

In the budget plan presented this week, Newsom said new money was important for “getting those final appropriations and finish(ing) the job in the Central Valley.”

The 119-mile high-speed rail project has been under construction in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties for seven years.

Proposition 1A in 2008 provided a total of more than $9.9 billion to help pay for development and construction of high-speed rail in California.

Ahead of his big announcement Monday, Newsom had previewed that his budget would include spending some of the anticipated surplus on infrastructure, something lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support. On Monday, he announced he wants to spend $9.1 billion on transportation.

Click here to read the full article at the Fresno Bee

California Farmworkers Now Get Overtime Pay After 8 hours. Some Growers Say It’s a Problem

For the past two decades during the harvest season, 58-year-old farmworker Lourdes Cárdenas would wake up at 3 a.m. to get dressed, say her daily prayers and prepare lunch before driving an hour south from her home in Calwa to a farm in Huron. She’d pick crops like cherries, nectarines, and peaches from daybreak until sundown — at least 10 hours a day, six days a week.

There would be days where she wouldn’t get home until 7 p.m or 8 p.m., depending on traffic, she said. For many of those years, she was paid minimum wage. There was no overtime pay.

“It’s a long work day,” she said in Spanish. “I’d get home very late, exhausted. It’s very hard work being in the fields.”

For years, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers toiling in California’s agricultural heartland weren’t entitled to overtime pay unless they worked more than 10 hours a day. But that has changed due to a 2016 state law that’s been gradually implemented over four years. As of Jan. 1, California law requires that employers with 26 or more employees pay overtime wages to farmworkers after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

That means many farmworkers like Cárdenas will now be compensated time-and-a-half for working more than eight hours. It’s a change advocates say is long overdue to provide the agricultural labor force with the same protections afforded to other hourly workers. But opponents argue that the law — though well-intentioned — strains farmers who already operate on thin margins and confront other financial challenges. Employers also say the new rules will disadvantage workers, as they’ll likely reduce hours in an attempt to cut increasing labor costs.

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Under the law, which was authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, farmworkers began in 2019 to gradually receive the same overtime pay as employees in other industries. Farmworkers previously became eligible for overtime benefits after 10 hours, but the law has lowered the threshold for overtime pay by half an hour annually for the past three years, until reaching the standard eight hours this year.

In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Gonzalez said “none of my bills stole my heart more.”

The full implementation of the law for larger-scale growers marks the most recent win for labor advocates, who had been running a decades-long campaign to secure overtime pay for farmworkers. California is one of six states, alongside Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New York and Washington, to provide overtime pay to agricultural workers. Many states, however, only provide overtime pay after the 60-hour threshold has been met.

FRESNO GROWERS CONCERNED ABOUT FARMWORKER OVERTIME LAW

Eriberto Fernandez, the government affairs deputy director at the UFW Foundation, which sponsored the California bill, said the law secures a basic protection for a workforce that has long been exploited. He added that agricultural workers were excluded from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that gave most employees the right to minimum wage and overtime pay.

“It’s a very historic and momentous occasion for farmworkers that they now, for the first time in the history of agricultural labor, have the same rights as all other Californians do,” he said. “For the first time since the 1930s, equal overtime pay now also applies to farmworkers.”

Fernandez said the law will provide farmworkers with more quality time with their families. He also said farmworkers, many of whom work ten- to twelve-hour shifts during the peak harvest season, will be fairly compensated for their labor.

“This is about leveling the playing field for farmworkers,” he said. “We’re hoping that this new law now puts farmworkers on equal ground with all other industries in California.”

But many growers say the new law could do more damage than good.

Ryan Jacobsen, a farmer and Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO, said the law doesn’t address the needs of the farming industry, arguing that agriculture requires a unique set of rules because it is subject to changing weather and seasons. And unlike other businesses, the labor-intensive industry requires more flexibility on scheduling and working, especially during peak harvest times, he said.

“Most of these jobs in the industry are still seasonal in nature and there are times of the year where there’s more work than there is in other times of the year,” he said. “In the California ag industry, there was always — up until the passage of this bill — an understanding that these employees would be able to make up these hours during these shorter windows because there’s not as much availability of farm agricultural work (in other times of the year).”

Daniel Hartwig, a fourth generation grape farmer from Easton who also works as the procurement manager at Woolf Farming, agreed. He said that the law makes an already fickle industry even more complicated for growers.

Growers have been concerned about labor costs increasing, in part due to California regulations, Hartwig said. He said many growers are reducing their employees’ hours and transitioning to cultivating other crops that don’t require as much human labor. Instead of planting fruit trees, Hartwig has switched over to nuts like almonds and pistachios, he said.

“We can’t absorb those additional labor costs,” he said. “So we’ve just kind of refocused on making sure more of our crops are able to be mechanically harvested. Those are the choices we’re making. (The law) is hurting farmers, and it’s hurting the farm workers as well.”

Fresno County broke its own record for agricultural and livestock production in 2020, peaking at more than $7.98 billion, according to the crop report from county Agricultural Commissioner Melissa Cregan. Nuts were among the top earners. Almonds were the county’s top-grossing crop, earning $1.25 billion, while pistachios made up $761 million, the report found.

Fernandez, of the UFW Foundation, said it’s “unfortunate” that farmers are reducing hours for their employees given the county’s record-breaking years.

“These are the same arguments that we hear over and over again about how these laws are going to destroy agribusiness in California,” he said. “And if anything, we’ve seen the opposite — we’ve seen the California businesses thriving. For them, it’s a matter of economics and of profitability. They’re choosing to shorten worker hours to save money that they would otherwise have paid for overtime pay.”

CALIFORNIA FARMWORKER WAGES INCREASING

Farmworkers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S, according to a 2021 report from The Economic Policy Institute. On average, farmworkers in 2020 earned about $14.62 per hour, “far less than even some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. labor force,” the report found. Farmworkers at that wage rate earned below 60% compared to what workers outside of agriculture made, according to the report.

Click here to read the full article at the Fresno Bee

60% of S.F. Drug Incidents Are In The Tenderloin. That Number’s Rise Is One Factor In the Debate Over a ‘State of Emergency’

Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. A small, dense neighborhood in the heart of downtown, the “T.L.” is home to museums, the city’s theatre district and about 36,000 San Franciscans.

The Tenderloin has also long been a hotbed for illicit drug use, an issue made all the more urgent by the recent surge in overdose deaths. Data from SFPD shows that about 60% of San Francisco’s drug-related reported police incidents in 2021 have occurred in the neighborhood, up from about 40% in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Breed’s declaration follows months of stories in national media focused on a perceived crime wave in San Francisco. Some city leaders and public officials, including San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott and Supervisors Ahsha Safai and Catherine Stefani, have supported Breed’s emergency declaration, which came with pledges to offer additional services to people suffering from addiction. She also proposed increased funding to police in order to get “a lot more aggressive” with existing laws, including a city ordinance that prevents people from lying or sitting on sidewalks.

Other officials, like District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton and Public Defender Mano Raju, agree the Tenderloin is in crisis — but criticize the Mayor’s plans to increase policing and jail those who refuse treatment, saying they echo historic tough-on-crime policies that failed to reduce crime rates in the city or meaningfully help people with drug addictions.

As Breed and other city leaders begin to enact the state of emergency plan, which the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on at 2 p.m. on Thursday, the Chronicle examined data kept by the SFPD to see what it could tell us how drug activity and policing in the Tenderloin has changed over time, focusing on the pandemic period.

SFPD data shows that the Tenderloin has consistently had the most drug-related incidents, defined as reports filed with the department about incidents involving drugs, of any of the city’s neighborhoods. This year so far, the T.L. has had 1,186 reported drug incidents — nearly two-thirds of the city’s total, even though the neighborhood accounts for just 4% of its population. Over that time period, the neighborhood had a reported drug incident rate of nearly 330 crimes per 10,000 residents. That’s more than three times that of SoMa, the neighborhood with the second-highest drug incident rate in the city, and nearly 15 times that of the Financial District, the third-highest.

Click here to read the full article at the San Francisco Chronicle

No Chicken Patties For Lunch? Southern California Schools Grapple With Supply-Chain Shortages

Supply chain issues are forcing Southern California school districts to reimagine their menus to compensate for current and expected shortages of popular food items.

Hamburgers. Chicken patties. These and other lunchtime staples have been increasingly difficult to come by lately.

With labor shortages worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, the food production and distribution industries are hurting, and bottlenecks at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are delaying the offloading of all sorts of cargo.

As one San Bernardino County district puts it, with longtime vendors burdened with requests from multiple school systems, demand for certain items is currently higher than supply.

But there are mouths to feed today, tomorrow and every day — for the rest of this school year.

Since the start of the 2021-22 academic calendar, nutrition services staffers across Southern California have worked to ensure hundreds of thousands of students get the nourishment they need, even if what has been planned and what ultimately ends up being delivered changes from one minute to the next.

“We’re working magic to make it happen,” Riverside Unified School District spokesperson Diana Meza said. “But all schools are doing that. There’s a lot more preparation involved.”

Schools get creative with menus

The Riverside district serves about 32,000 meals a day, Meza said, and while certain shortages have made securing student favorites like hamburgers and chicken patties more difficult than ever, officials have been buying more local fruits and vegetables.

Click here to read the full article at OC Register

What Can We Expect in a Frackless California? Economic Devastation, More Energy Imports.

Care to guess the last time the governor’s office issued a new fracking permit? It was February.

Now that’s a meaningless fact without context, so let’s put it perspective: Even though “Newsom endorsed an end to fracking” while running for governor in 2018, says California political legend Dan Walters, his administration early on increased the flow of fracking permits.

But then Newsom later “came under heavy pressure to match his words with action,” Walters continues.

By November 2019, Newsom had set ​a moratorium on fracking projects. Before permits would be issued, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers would review plans to ensure they met regulatory requirements. Yet it wasn’t terribly long before “the state issued 48 new permits for hydraulic fracturing,” according to the Associated Press.

Then the recall collar got tight in April. The governor’s response was to ban new fracking anywhere in the state by 2024. Even though he previously said he didn’t think he had the authority to prohibit the process and asked the Legislature to do it for him. And even though a legislative attempt never made it out of committee.

So can we expect in a frackless California?

Energy analyst and author Michael Shellenberger says Newsom’s fracking prohibition is simply “​​bonkers.” Assemblyman Rudy Salas, a Bakersfield Democrat, called it “an abuse of power” that will “put the lives, economy and well-being of thousands of California families in jeopardy.” Western States Petroleum Association President and CEO Catherine Reheis-Boyd says it’s an “arbitrary” action that will impose “big impacts on Californians.”

Both the Western States Petroleum Association and the board of supervisors in oil-rich Kern County, which produces roughly two-thirds of the crude that California doesn’t import – making the county the seventh highest oil-producing region in the U.S. – have sued the governor over his order. It’s an existential matter for each party.

In “The Killing of Kern County,” Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute, usefully explains for the many in Sacramento who are missing the point that oil (and agriculture) are the foundations holding up the county’s economy. Despite what’s at stake, Kotkin believes Newsom is more “interested in flattening the area’s aspirations” than unlocking its potential, which the governor once pledged to do.

Regulators, for instance, turned down 21 fracking applications in Kern County in a single month over the summer. With one of every seven workers in the county either employed by or reliant on the oil industry, the denial of so many jobs is not an insignificant blow to the economy.

The energy producers of the WSPA are also at risk. Court rulings in Newsom’s favor make the next step – the complete shutdown of oil production across the state – much easier to take.

Maybe the oddest part of any California energy story is the fact that officials and activists seem to have no reservations about importing what they consider “dirty” energy from other states. That reliance is only going to grow as long as Sacramento is at war with fossil fuels.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Research Institute

Child Vaccinations Begin in California with Toys and Gifts

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Scavenger hunts and blow-up animals greeted children at some of California’s vaccination sites Wednesday as children aged 5 to 11 got their first COVID-19 shots a day after the federal government approved kid-size doses of the vaccinations.

One enthusiastic 11-year-old summed up his experience in a word: “Amazing!” said 6th grader Raghab Vist. “I’ve been waiting a really long time to get vaccinated.”

Vist and his father, Hemant, who went to a vaccine clinic in San Jose, spoke of all the things they looked forward to doing again — eating in a restaurant, taking a train and traveling to family favorites like Disneyland. “It’s a very important milestone for us,” his father said.

As part of an ambitious plan to offer coronavirus vaccinations to California’s 3.5 million children in that age group, the state intends to offer the vaccines at locations including school clinics, pharmacies, pediatrician offices and county sites, many of which will launch in the coming days. Health officials said they are expecting 1.2 million initial doses of the pediatric vaccine.

Santa Clara County, the home of Silicon Valley where San Jose is located, starting doling out shots early Wednesday, and appointments quickly booked up. The county expects to receive about 55,000 doses this week and will open additional clinics at 80 school sites and send out mobile vaccine teams to low-income neighborhoods.

“We know that a lot of parents are anxious to get their children vaccinated with the holidays coming up,” said Dr. Jennifer Tong, who oversees the county’s mass vaccination program. “We received our shipment of vaccine yesterday, and we didn’t have any good reason to sit on it. So we said, let’s get this show on the road.”

Many of Santa Clara’s county sites were decorated with kid-friendly motifs like animals and included games like scavenger hunts, while others handed out coloring books, prizes and stickers to newly vaccinated young people.

Click here to read the full article at ap.com

Gov. Newsom Downgrades Bullet Train and Delta Tunnel Plans


High speed rail constructionWhen Gavin Newsom was running for governor last year, he adopted “courage for a change” as his slogan.

It could be – and was – interpreted two ways: that he wanted to change the direction of California, or that he was disparaging outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown’s reluctance to confront the state’s pithiest issues.

Newsom seemingly embraced both versions Tuesday in his first State of the State address, a very long and detailed laundry list of the state’s ills and how he intends to deal with them that directly and indirectly refuted Brown.

Most starkly, Newsom downgraded two of his predecessor’s pet legacy projects, twin tunnels to carry water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a statewide bullet train system.

He rejected WaterFix, as it’s been dubbed, and instead offered support for one tunnel while seeking compromise among California’s perpetually warring water factions. However, shrinking the project would require starting over on many years of planning twin tunnels, thus giving opponents of diverting water from the Delta new opportunities to kill it. Moreover, it’s questionable whether lowering the project’s capacity would make it pencil out for its sponsors, principally Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District.

Newsom also hit the pause button for compelling farmers south of the Delta to cede more water by calling for a compromise agreement and changing the chairmanship of the State Water Resources Control Board, whose water diversion plans had angered farmers.

The bullet train project fared even worse in Newsom’s declaration that “as currently planned (it) would cost too much and take too long.”

Casting aside Brown’s obvious love for a statewide system linking Sacramento and San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, Newsom called for completing just the roughly 100-mile-long initial San Joaquin Valley segment, from Merced to near Bakersfield, and making it a high-speed system.

However, electrifying the track now under construction and buying high-speed trains to run on it would be an enormously expensive gesture for such short service. More likely, the stretch of track, when completed, will be folded into the region’s existing Amtrak service.

Newsom’s declarations on the water tunnels and the bullet train were the biggest nuggets of news in his speech, most of which was devoted to issues he had raised in the campaign, in his inaugural address and in his first budget.

He hit all the big bullet points, from California’s housing crisis to the increasing threat of wildfires and the bankruptcy of utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric, and pronounced that all could be solved by collaboration and new thinking. And, of course, he took the obligatory potshots that the governor of a deep blue state is expected to take at President Donald Trump, particularly on Trump’s insistence on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The border ‘emergency’ is a manufactured crisis,” Newsom declared – quite accurately. “And California will not be part of this political theater.”

A day earlier, he had announced that he would withdraw most of the National Guard troops that Brown, albeit reluctantly, had committed to guarding the border.

All in all, Newsom set an ambitious agenda for his governorship, the sort of multi-point plan that Brown had often denigrated. And in doing so, the new governor set a high mark for his political future.

Achieving all he seeks would propel him into White House contention sometime after 2020. Failing, for whatever reason, would make him a footnote in California’s political history.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org