California hospitals buckle under patient surge, sick staff
California hospitals are struggling to keep up with increasing COVID cases at the same time they’re facing staffing shortages.
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Good morning, California. It’s Thursday, January 13.
California will likely surpass last winter’s peak of 53,000 hospitalized patients in “the next few days,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday, noting that around 12,300 of the 52,400 people currently in the hospital have tested positive for COVID.
His projection foreshadows even more stress for health care workers already at their breaking point. Today, members of the California Nurses Association are scheduled to hold rallies across the state to demand safe staffing levels and stronger workplace protections — and to denounce a new state rule allowing COVID-positive asymptomatic employees to keep working in facilities with critical staff shortages.
Workers say the rule has resulted in COVID-positive employees at some hospitals tending to vulnerable patients, including those undergoing chemotherapy and in neonatal intensive care.
- Dr. Ileana Meza, an SEIU union chair and nurse practitioner at Los Angeles County-USC Hospital: “(The rule) means you’re coming into the facility without the virus and you may contract the virus. This is not the way to drive this pandemic down.”
- Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a UCLA Fielding School of Public Health epidemiologist: “Is it the lesser of two evils … having no one to care for patients, versus having staff caring for them that may have COVID? Yes, it’s the lesser of two evils.”
But even with the rule, there still aren’t enough workers to go around as omicron spreads like wildfire. Staff shortages have forced many hospitals to begin delaying certain procedures — including lung transplants and brain surgery — and have also prompted clinics, labs and urgent care facilities to temporarily close or reduce their hours of operation.
Meanwhile, a nationwide blood shortage — one so dire that the American Red Cross is trying to entice donors with the chance to win Super Bowl tickets — forced a Los Angeles trauma center to close for several hours on Monday, the first time in more than three decades that such a step had to be taken. “That is not a situation we want to find ourselves in,” said Los Angeles County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly.
And another new state rule that requires all nursing home visitors — including those who are fully vaccinated — to provide a negative COVID test result within 24 or 48 hours is spurring backlash from some advocates and family members.
- Tony Chicotel, staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform: “It’s been virtually impossible to get a test or test results back in that time frame in order to actually see your loved one.”
On top of all that, COVID is ripping through California’s juvenile prisons, where 20% of youth currently have the virus and at least one was recently hospitalized for severe symptoms, CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports.
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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 6,188,867 confirmed cases (+1.7% from previous day) and 76,683 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
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Other stories you should know
1. Californians face big cost increases
Newsom’s proposal to give Californians a $523 million gas tax holiday likely became even more appealing to many residents on Wednesday, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that inflation skyrocketed 7% in 2021 to its highest level in 40 years. The price of gas shot up nearly 50%, used cars and trucks 37%, energy 29%, food 6% and shelter 4% — increases that experts say erased many of workers’ wage gains amid the pandemic. “Households are seeing their purchasing power disappear, and that is not good news for the economy,” said Joel Naroff, president of Pennsylvania-based Naroff Economic Advisors.
Meanwhile, California’s unemployment department is seeking to claw back benefits it may have fraudulently paid out during the pandemic — and some residents unable to prove they were unemployed or looking for work could soon be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars, Jesse Bedayn reports for CalMatters’ California Divide project. Among them is Donna Casey, a musician who lost all her paperwork when her home burned down in the 2020 August Complex Fire and may be forced to pay back more than $30,000 to the Employment Development Department.
- Casey: “They are going to want money back from me that I don’t have. What are they going to do to me, put me in jail? At least I’ll have a place to live.”
2. Single-payer to get a price tag
Speaking of price tags, Californians may soon have a better idea of how much it would cost the state to create a single-payer health care system. On Tuesday, the same day a proposal to do just that cleared its first hurdle in the state Legislature, Democratic Assemblymember Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova asked the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office to prepare a “comprehensive fiscal analysis” of the bill, according to a letter I obtained. The move is a big win for Republicans, 18 of whom asked Cooley, who leads the Assembly Rules Committee, to request the analysis. But it could also help Democrats who have already expressed concern about the proposal avoid supporting it in the future: The letter asks that the analysis be completed by March 15, long after the single-payer bill’s Jan. 31 deadline to pass the Assembly.
- Jim Stanley, press secretary for the Assembly Republican Caucus, told me: “Without a cost analysis, these members are walking the plank blindfolded — the votes they’re casting are totally open-ended, and if it comes back that this plan will kill a few hundred jobs and bankrupt the state, they’ll be on record supporting that.”
3. Sirhan Sirhan decision looms
Another quickly approaching deadline: Newsom by Friday must decide to whether to release from prison Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted in 1968 of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy and recently recommended for parole. Newsom, who counts Kennedy among his personal heroes, has hinted he’s disinclined to grant Sirhan parole. He reinforced that message in stronger terms on Wednesday, when a reporter asked if he’s frustrated by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s campaign against vaccines. (Kennedy, Jr. is one of two of Kennedy children who support releasing Sirhan, while six siblings oppose granting him parole.)
- Newsom: “Not when the overwhelming majority — overwhelming majority — of the family members feel completely differently than he does. I mean, that same individual was out there campaigning for … Larry Elder’s candidacy for governor. He’s also been directly misleading and lying to people about a number of things including my own reaction, or non-reaction, to the booster. So with respect to that individual, he’s not someone I follow day in and day out for counsel, advice, consultation, and the overwhelming majority of the Shriver and Kennedy family members are opposed to Mr. Sirhan’s release.”
4. California housing updates
From CalMatters housing reporter Manuela Tobias: When a single person or a couple earns less than $43,533 or $87,066, respectively, and lives in a rental unit in California, they can claim $60 or $120 in tax credits. That subsidy hasn’t budged in more than 40 years, even as rents have skyrocketed — prompting state Sen. Steve Glazer, a Walnut Creek Democrat, and 43 other lawmakers on Wednesday to propose bumping the credit to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples and single parents. The increase would cost California about $1 billion annually, which Glazer’s office argued is only a fraction of the $6.3 billion the state spends on homeowners each year.
Meanwhile, a controversial bill that aims to protect people from eviction cleared a key legislative hurdle Wednesday — but could face a tough road ahead. The proposal would force property owners in rent-controlled jurisdictions to hold onto their buildings for at least five years before invoking the Ellis Act, which gives them a path to exit the rental market and evict tenants. Similar bills have failed at least three times in the past amid opposition from landlords and Realtors.
- Assemblymember Alex Lee, a San Jose Democrat and the bill’s author: “This bill is targeted towards property speculators who, in very recent history, buy up properties and within the first one to five years, flip them like that. You’re converting affordable units to market-rate units. So in effect, that worsens the housing crisis.”
- Sanjay Wagle, senior vice president of the California Association of Realtors: “In any other business, you can get out of it. So it’s strange for the state to say, ‘Not you, you can’t get out of the business of renting.'”
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CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Newsom’s new budget would spend nearly $300 billion next fiscal year, but will revenues support the plan?
Save the Capitol annex — and half a billion dollars: Why won’t state lawmakers consider spending at least $500 million fewer taxpayer dollars on a safe and functional office space? It’s hard to know since the approval process ignored the California Environmental Quality Act, writes Quentin Kopp, president of the San Francisco Taxpayers Association.
Help museums fight climate change: State lawmakers should allocate $125 million of California’s $3.7 billion investment in climate resiliency to museums and cultural institutions, argues Katrice Lee of the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Other things worth your time
Oakland schools brace for another teacher sickout as students threaten to walkout next week. // San Francisco Chronicle
Teachers at West Contra Costa Unified plan sickouts throughout the week. // EdSource
Rapid tests distributed by school districts see few reporting results. // Bakersfield Californian
‘Grim’ outlook for California children’s well-being, report finds. // EdSource
Here’s how much money Los Angeles parents are fundraising for schools, and what it buys. // LAist
‘Suspicious’ fire scorches City Heights home of political leaders Fletcher, Gonzalez. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Santa Clara County restricts court access again for omicron. // Mercury News
Judge blocks new California law limiting vaccine site protests. // San Francisco Chronicle
California sues ‘sharing ministry’ health insurance plan. // Associated Press
Los Angeles County to pay $1 million to FBI informant in jail abuse scandal. // Los Angeles Times
Meet the San Francisco man with the inside dirt on city’s famously filthy streets. // San Francisco Chronicle
California assault weapon owners face registration deadline. // Associated Press
California DMV initiates new review of Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving.’ // Washington Post
San Jose to decide moving mayoral election, allowing undocumented vote. // Mercury News
Sacramento filed for receivership on homes amid COVID-19. // Sacramento Bee
State government ends office leases in telework shift. // Sacramento Bee
See you tomorrow.
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