California sees suspicious surge in coronavirus unemployment claims for gig workers

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — California is reporting a surge in coronavirus unemployment claims last week for independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed — the category of benefits blamed for much of the state’s fraudulent payments.

The state last week received more than 110,800 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, an increase of more than 77,00 from the week before. It was so large it accounted for more than a quarter of all such claims nationally, according to numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The claims fall under a program Congress approved last year to give unemployment benefits to people during the pandemic who are usually ineligible to receive them. The program has helped a lot of people who are self-employed weather economic shutdowns from the virus. But its broad eligibility requirements have made it a target of criminals seeking easy paydays.

State officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, have repeatedly blamed the unemployment benefits program for the self employed as the source of much of the state’s fraud. Last year, the state acknowledged it paid $400 million in fraudulent benefits in the names of 20,000 prison inmates. An analysis of 345,000 frozen accounts last year by Bank of America estimated the state paid at least $2 billion in fraudulent claims.

And Blake Hall, founder and CEO of ID.me, told the Los Angeles Times last week that at least 10% of all claims submitted before the state put in new safeguards in October may have been fraudulent — which could result in nearly $10 billion in fraudulent payments.

The number of unemployment claims for contractors and gig workers fell significantly after the state imposed new safeguards, until Thursday when a massive increase was reported.

Loree Levy, deputy director of public affairs for the Employment Development Department, said state officials expected that increase after Congress approved an extension of benefits as part of a coronavirus relief package in December.

Levy said it took a few weeks for the state to implement the additional 11 weeks of benefits that Congress approved, causing a delay for some new claims during that period. Plus, she said another round of business restrictions in December because of a surge of coronavirus hospitalizations likely increased the number of people filing for new claims.

But Michael Bernick, a former EDD director who is now an attorney with the Duane Morris law firm, said the numbers “make no sense” because the increase the state reported was all for new claims, not existing claims.

Most independent contractors in California that have been impacted by the pandemic should already have filed their claims in the previous nine months, he said. Their benefits would be extended under the new congressional aid package, but those benefits should not have shown up as new claims.

“These numbers suggest that the identify-theft rings from throughout the world have not halted efforts, and fraud remains a main issue,” Bernick said.

The state has been overwhelmed with unemployment claims since March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order that shuttered many businesses. The state has processed more than 19 million claims and paid out more than $113 billion in benefits.

About 4 million of those claims claims and $43 billion of those payments payments fall under the program for independent contractors.

California was flooded with claims in the early days of the pandemic after Newsom imposed stay-at-home orders in mid-March that closed most businesses. The department managed to resolve most of a backlog that peaked last year at 1.6 million claims. But the pile has grown again and now stands at more than 800,000 people.

Newsom imposed a new stay-at-home order on much of the state in December after a surge in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Newsom extended those orders in many regions this month. But he lifted the order for the counties in and around the state capital.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a frequent critic of Newsom’s handling of the state’s unemployment claims, said he his office has been inundated with calls from constituents in recent weeks seeking help obtaining unemployment benefits, an indication that many have again lost their jobs because of the lingering restrictions on businesses.

Patterson said he suspects the increase in claims is likely a mix of fraudulent and legitimate claims, noting state officials have not been able to tell the difference. Last month, the state froze an additional 1.4 million claims because of fraud suspicions, prompting an outcry from people who say their legitimate benefits were halted.

“Legitimate people are being denied and we can’t really get a handle by how much fraud is still out there,” he said. “The fraudsters are still attacking the system and getting paid and those who should be getting paid are finding it more and more difficult.”

The safeguards the department has put in place have made it much harder for people to file fraudulent claims, said El Dorado District Attorney Vern Pierson, president of the California District Attorneys Association and one of many prosecutors investigating fraudulent unemployment claims statewide.

Pierson said he believes the spike in claims is likely related to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and accompanying business restrictions that have hurt the economy.

But no system is foolproof, he said.

“Criminals are still trying to defeat the system,” Pierson said. “It can be defeated.”

The state has not said how many fraudulent claims it has paid. State Auditor Elaine Howle is scheduled to release two audits of the department next week.

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‘A lot of us are going to have PTSD.’ Fatigue, burnout, exhaustion plague hospital staffs during COVID surge

When Ruth Godde hooks up her patients to a ventilator at Antelope Valley Hospital, sometimes they grab her arm and ask if they are going to make it.

“You can’t with assurance say ‘yes’ to them, but you don’t want them to be more stressed than they already are, so we say, ‘We’re doing this to save you,’ ” she said. “But you realize as you’re incubating them the chances are they might not make it. In several instances, they don’t.”

As the COVID case count surges across Southern California, medical workers report burnout, fatigue and exhaustion as they scramble to save their patients’ lives.

“It’s exhausting mentally,” Godde said, adding that during her 12-hour shifts she has only one opportunity to eat or drink. She often cries in her car on the way home.

Every minute 10 people test positive for coronavirus in Los Angeles County. Every six minutes someone dies from the virus, officials say. Some ambulances circle for hours until a bed is free at hospitals. And some mortuaries are so full, they refuse to take on more bodies.

Los Angeles County, in the meantime, has approached the grim milestone of 1 million coronavirus cases, with more than 13,930 fatalities.

Death takes heavy toll

That has taken a merciless toll on medical workers.

On some days, nurse Michele Younkin from St. Jude Medical Center’s COVID-19 unit in Fullerton sees multiple deaths, she said, and rarely makes it through a shift without crying or comforting other nurses.

“I hold every patient that I lost … I hold them in my heart,” she said, as her voice cracked. “I can picture every single one, and I will probably never forget them.

“It’s emotionally taxing on our floor,” she added, “because we have so many deaths.”


In this July 31, 2020, file photo, Romelia Navarro, 64, holds the hand of her dying husband, Antonio, as nurse Michele Younkin injects the patient with a solution in his final moments in a COVID-19 unit at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

For Dr. Thomas Yadegar, a pulmonologist and medical director of the intensive care unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, it’s been a long 10 months since the pandemic began raging. When he walks into the hospital, he knows the first few minutes there will be “one emergency after another” until the end of his 20-hour shift.

“No matter how many hours I put in, no matter how hard I work, it just seems like at the end of the day, there are another 10, 15, 20 patients that need my attention,” he said, “and it’s heartbreaking because I know that I’m not able to give them everything that they deserve.”

Every single day, depending on the caseload, Yadegar typically cares for about 35 patients, but there are days when he is responsible for up to 80. He can’t remember the last time he slept more than three hours at a time. These days, Yadegar said, he sees more deaths in a day than he did in a month before the post-Thanksgiving surge.

Within mere weeks in early December, he said, the hospital was functioning smoothly with a small number of coronavirus patients, and then the COVID patient volume kept doubling, overwhelming the staff.

“I had to expand our ICU and, even with increased capacity, 90% of patients in our ICUs were COVID-19 patients,” Yadegar said. “Every single floor is now filled with COVID-19 patients and over 80% of our acute care are devoted to COVID-19 patients.” The hospital had to cancel any kind of elective and semi-elective surgeries so it could focus on treating patients infected with the virus.

Keeping families connected

At the nursing station at UC Irvine in Orange County, meanwhile, the phone is ringing nonstop as family members seek updates on the conditions of their loved ones, said Angela Mayfield, a registered nurse in a medical-surgical unit during a recent virtual protest hosted by California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.


Registered nurses Robin Gooding, left, and Johanna Ortiz treat a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

“Nurses have worked short-staffed for many months while the work at the bedside remains physically and emotionally exhausting. The patients’ conditions are declining and the pressure on the bedside nurse can be overwhelming,” she said.

Registered nurse Robin Gooding at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills said nurses are “working really hard” providing emotional support to patients who often are not allowed to see family members.

“It’s kind of puts a burden on the stuff because you have to become a family member to patients,” she said, adding that the staff often feels “responsible for making sure those patients are passing comfortably.”

Patients in the hallways

Another nurse from UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center said during the same protest her emergency department is so crowded that patients are moved to the hallway, putting both patients and staff at risk for exposure.

Nurses describe similar experiences at other hospitals, citing exhaustion and burnout amid dealing with the overload of patients, the shortage of gowns and broken equipment.

Valerie Ewald, a registered nurse at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, said she was offered “decontaminated masks,” that not only smelled bad but also had broken straps, making her wonder whether they offer sufficient protection.

In a statement, UCLA Health spokesman said that the hospital has “sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment and follows CDC guidelines regarding quality.”

“The safety and well-being of UCLA Health nurses, our other health care workers and our patients is our overriding priority at all times,” Enrique Rivero said. “We understand the anxiety created by the high volume of COVID-19 patients and associated workload, and we value our staff’s dedication to safe, high-quality, compassionate patient care.”

Higher nurse-patient ratios

It doesn’t help that the state recently allowed hospitals to adjust their nurse-to-patient ratios. New rules adopted during the pandemic allow hospitals to ask ICU nurses to care for three patients instead of two while emergency room and telemetry nurses might be required to take care of six instead of four patients.

Hospitals say they are so overloaded with high numbers of coronavirus patients, they simply don’t have enough medical personnel to respond to the crisis.

But asking nurses to take care of more patients will overwhelm already exhausted medical staff and weaken their ability to provide quality care, workers say.

“We are working to exhaustion, sweating and dehydrated from the long hours of wearing the personal protective equipment that we need to keep safe,” Mayfield said. “Our patients are struggling to breathe and stay alive.”

On a recent afternoon, Godde stopped another nurse at Antelope Valley Hospital, a mother of a newborn, who’s still breastfeeding, to remind her to go pump.

“She’s been leaking for a couple of hours and … you can tell she isn’t even aware of it because we’re all running around,” she said. “It breaks your heart.”

Quality care suffering

One Godde colleague at Antelope Valley, intensive care unit nurse Cindy Gillison, said she deals with “the sickest of the sick” on a daily basis. Medical staffing, meanwhile, is stretched so thin, she added, they can’t provide the quality care their patients need.

“These patients are dying alone,” she said, adding that there’s nowhere for the staff to put the bodies. Two refrigerated semi-trucks parked in the hospital’s parking lot are holding bodies. “There’s a tremendous amount of crying. It’s devastating.”


Before her 12-hour shift, nurse Cindy Gillison poses on Jan. 13 outside Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, where she is caring for more patients since the state allowed hospitals to relax nurse-to-patient ratios amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the last few months, she has seen “a mass exodus” of nurses to bigger hospitals that offer bonuses and higher pay. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Once the pandemic is over, “a lot of us are going to have PTSD,” said the single mother of three. “It’s like a war zone. … We’re in the wrong place at the wrong time all the time.”

Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris said FEMA and Samaritan’s Purse, the faith-based disaster relief organization, have provided about 60 medical personnel to Antelope Valley Hospital to relieve the workload.

Still, like many other medical workers, Gillison braces herself for another surge following New Year’s Eve. “It’s scary to think what’s going to happen after four weeks, when the New Year’s surge comes,” she said.

The most frustrating part of the latest surge? It was preventable, medical workers say.

In the beginning of the pandemic, said Yadegar from Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, health care workers sensed support from the general public, but in recent weeks that support has “dissipated.” That, he said, has been “truly demoralizing and has taken everything away from us.”

As he drives home after his 20-hour shift, he watches how people are “living their lives as if nothing is happening.”

“If the general public … could see the misery, the pain and the anguish that we deal with on a daily basis,” he said, “they would not want to go to the grocery store, let alone get together or go to parties or travel.”

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Coronavirus: California passed 3 million cases, 34,000 deaths on Jan. 19

California’s case count has hit the 3 million milestone.

According to data gleaned from local public health departments across the state, there were 57,307 new cases and 700 new deaths reported from Tuesday, Jan. 19.

And, of the 3.2 million vaccinations distributed throughout the state, 1.39 million have been administered, tracking showed.

 

California regions and ICU capacity for Jan. 19

As ICU capacity dwindles in Southern California the percentages in this graphic have been adjusted by state public health officials to represent the high levels of COVID-19 patients among all ICU patients. More actual beds may be available.

Vaccines administered as of Jan. 17

The California Department of Public Health site shows a total of 3,226,775 vaccine doses, which includes the first and second dose, have been shipped to local health departments and health care systems as of Jan. 17.

The totals of vaccines administered across six different regions are in the maps below. As of Jan. 17, a total of 1,393,224 vaccine doses have been administered statewide.That’s up 609,748 from the Jan. 11 report. The state cautions that the numbers do not represent true day-to-day change as reporting may be delayed.

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Joe Biden’s COVID team is nervous about what the Trump team hasn’t told them

By Sara Murray, MJ Lee and Kristen Holmes | CNN

With the hours dwindling until Joe Biden is sworn in — officially taking the helm of the US government during its worst health crisis in 100 years — a sense of nervousness has set in among those advising the incoming President on the pandemic.

The overarching, nagging concern: “They don’t know what they don’t know,” said a source close to the Biden Covid-19 team.

Biden is set to inherit a nation grieving hundreds of thousands of Americans who have perished from the virus, a health care system buckling under the strain of the pandemic, new variants of the disease popping up around the world and a public that is both stressed about the prospect of when they can get vaccinated, as well as dubious about whether to trust the vaccine when it’s their turn in line.

Multiple officials familiar with the transition said the lack of full cooperation and transparency from the outgoing Trump administration has contributed to Biden’s Covid team feeling frustrated and concerned about having a full understanding of the scope of the problems they will confront on Day One.

But the President-elect’s team feels ready for the fight.

[vemba-video id=”politics/2021/01/19/joe-biden-on-covid-19-mh-orig.cnn”]

“We’re not going to hide from the fact that is going to be a tremendous effort that is going to require the hard work of millions of Americans,” said Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat on the House coronavirus subcommittee who has participated in briefings with Biden’s transition team and was describing their posture coming into office. “It’s not going to be some magical solution.”

The President-elect understands just how much the success of his presidency will depend on his ability to get the virus under control, the source close to Biden’s Covid operation said. The President-elect is anxious and focused on the pandemic right now, which looms large over Wednesday’s inauguration.

Chief among the Biden team’s concerns right now is vaccine supply and turning around the lackluster distribution effort, though new strains of the virus are another persistent worry for the incoming team.

One source familiar with the Biden effort acknowledged a major gap the incoming team will have to confront is that there is currently no effective and trustworthy line of communication between states and the federal government.

Ramping up federal involvement in coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution starts with building up communications with each state to better understand their infrastructure and supply challenges, something that’s expected to be a focus in the early days of Biden’s presidency.

States are clamoring for the federal government to release larger batches of vaccine. But it’s still not clear if there will be enough vaccine available to drastically speed up the pace at which they can be distributed and administered.

While there is optimism that additional vaccines will be soon approved for use in the United States, including the potential of a single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there are questions about whether it can be produced fast enough to significantly address any potential supply problems.

Foster, the Illinois congressman, said getting information from the Trump administration on delivery schedules and production progress for vaccines “has been like pulling teeth.”

“And I understand the frustration of the Biden (team), if they were seeing the same sort of resistance we saw, on not what was contracted and promised but what the actual milestones in the vaccine production are along the way,” he added.

Outgoing health officials in the Trump administration, meanwhile, insist they have been cooperative with the Biden team and have had hundreds of meetings with Biden’s transition team.

Still, the Biden team likely won’t get a full scope of the vaccine production landscape until he takes office Wednesday.

The President-elect’s team has expressed concerns about trying to get a grasp on exactly how the vaccine distribution is playing out — and what’s slowing it down — across all 50 states.

Even though Biden’s team is fully aware they can’t federalize the vaccine distribution process with the snap of a finger, the President-elect has vowed that the federal government will play a much more aggressive role in streamlining the vaccine distribution and Covid containment efforts.

But even when it comes to some signature promises — like deploying the National Guard to run vaccination sites — it will most likely fall to each state to determine what works best for them.

New variants of the coronavirus could prove to be another vexing problem for the incoming administration.

The worst-case scenario for Biden’s team would a variant that cannot be treated by currently approved vaccines. But America’s inferior screening systems for monitoring new strains of the virus, combined with the fraught relationship with the outgoing Trump administration, adds emerging variants to the thorny list of problems a Biden administration won’t be able to fully tackle until he takes office.

Containing any new variant of the disease played into the Biden team’s decision to immediately throw cold water on President Donald Trump’s order lifting some travel restrictions on incoming travelers from much of Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil. While the outgoing President ordered those restrictions to be lifted on January 26 — nearly a week after Biden takes office — Biden’s team said the President-elect would block the order once he’s in office.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Monday. “In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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43 employees at Kaiser medical center in San Jose test positive for COVID-19

SAN JOSE — Some 43 employees at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center Emergency Department tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1, according to a senior official at the hospital.

“We will ensure that every affected staff member receives the care and support they need,” Irene Chavez, a senior vice president for Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement. “Using our infection prevention protocols, we are investigating the outbreak and using contact tracing to personally notify and test any staff or patients who were exposed during this time period based on (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and public health guidelines.”

Chavez said the hospital is moving quickly to test all emergency department employees and physicians for COVID-19.  Employees confirmed to have COVID-19 or suspected of having the virus due to symptoms will not come to work, she said.

The Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center remains open, officials said Saturday.

 

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Congress approves $900B COVID-19 relief bill, sending to Trump

By ANDREW TAYLOR

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday night that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill goes to President Donald Trump for his signature, which is expected in the coming days.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The six Republican senators voting against the bill were Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.

The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking as lawmakers wrangled over the relief question, a logjam that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants, and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached. Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted in the fall.

“This deal is not everything I want — not by a long shot,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longstanding voice in the party’s old-school liberal wing. “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether we help families or not. It’s about whether we help small businesses and restaurants or not. It’s about whether we boost (food stamp) benefits and strengthen anti-hunger programs or not. And whether we help those dealing with a job loss or not. To me, this is not a tough call.”

The Senate, meanwhile, was also on track to pass a one-week stopgap spending bill to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight and give Trump time to sign the sweeping legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC Monday morning that the direct payments would begin arriving in bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more aid to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were signaling a wait-and-see approach.

The measure would fund the government through September, wrapping a year’s worth of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw Senate committee or floor debate.

The legislation followed a tortured path. Democrats played hardball up until Election Day, amid accusations that they wanted to deny Trump a victory that might help him prevail. Democrats denied that, but their demands indeed became more realistic after Trump’s loss and as Biden made it clear that half a loaf was better than none.

The final bill bore ample resemblance to a $1 trillion package put together by Senate Republican leaders in July, a proposal that at the time was scoffed at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as way too little.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a victory lap after blocking far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He said the pragmatic approach of Biden was key.

“The president-elect suggesting that we needed to do something now was helpful in moving both Pelosi and Schumer into a better place,” McConnell told The Associated Press. “My view about what comes next is let’s take a look at it. Happy to evaluate that based upon the needs that we confront in February and March.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, D-Calif., came to the Senate to cast her vote for the bill. “The American people need relief and I want to be able to do what I can to help them,” she said.

On direct payments, the bill provides $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and $1,200 to couples making up to $150,000, with payments phased out for higher incomes. An additional $600 payment will be made per dependent child, similar to the last round of relief payments in the spring.

“I expect we’ll get the money out by the beginning of next week — $2,400 for a family of four,” Mnuchin said. “So much needed relief just in time for the holidays.”

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March. That more generous benefit and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment was also half the March payment.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread lockdowns in the spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough hasn’t heard the desperation in the voices of their constituents, has not looked into the eyes of the small-business owner on the brink of ruin,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, a lifelong New Yorker who pushed hard for money helping his city’s transit systems, renters, theaters and restaurants.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle-ground position that the top four leaders of Congress — the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate — used as the basis for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off of hardline positions.

“At times we felt like we were in the wilderness because people on all sides of the aisle didn’t want to give, in order to give the other side a win,” said freshman Rep. Elssa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was gross to watch, frankly.”

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.

The sweeping bill also contains $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

The governmentwide appropriations bill was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature. The Pentagon would receive $696 billion. Democrats and Senate Republicans prevailed in a bid to use bookkeeping maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more for domestic programs into the legislation.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It also would carry numerous clean-energy provisions sought by Democrats with fossil fuel incentives favored by Republicans, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires. Food stamp benefits would temporarily be increased by 15%.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for the length of legislation was the 2,847-page tax reform bill of 1986 — about one-half the size of Monday’s behemoth.

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Coronavirus state tracker: Hospitalizations in California surpass 14,000 people

Hospitalizations across the state continue to climb to all-time highs.

According to California public heath websites, there were 618 more patients hospitalized, bringing the total number of patients infected with coronavirus to 14,578 as of Dec. 13.

Intensive care capacity continues to decline in some regions. When public health officials adjust the percentage of actual open ICU beds to account for high levels of COVID-19 patients, the Southern California region fell to 2.7% ICU capacity available, while the San Joaquin Valley region’s ICU capacity available is nearly tapped out.

The state reported 24,588 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections to 1,572,755, according to official totals from California public health websites as of Dec. 13.

There were also 71 additional deaths reported in the state, bringing the total number of deaths to 21,044.

Three of the five California regions are under stay-at-home orders. Stay-at-home orders will be imposed within 24 hours for a region that has an ICU hospital capacity below 15%. They then stay in effect for at least three weeks.

 

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization, the California Department of Public Health, The Associated Press, reporting counties and news sources

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Top Workplaces 2020: See the list of Orange County’s winners

It’s been a surreal year for workplaces as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Orange County.

Offices closed suddenly. Daycare for working parents evaporated. Technology shifted to the home office, sometimes the kitchen table. Virtual meetings became the norm as thousands of bosses managed their teams from afar. Timecards, WiFi, laptops, HR issues and COVID-19 infections.

Thousands of people lost their jobs as the county’s unemployment rate neared 15% in late spring.

Amid the Great Lockdown of 2020, the Orange County Register sought the businesses that rose above for its 13th annual Top Workplaces program. Local companies, awash in their own coronavirus chaos, did not disappoint.

The honorees this year range from data and real estate companies to school districts, hospitals, nonprofits, a water utility and a favorite comfort-food chain. All of them stressed one thing above all: their people.

“When you have amazing people, you can’t help but have an incredible culture,” said Joone Lopez, the general manager of Moulton Niguel Water District.

Lopez put her employees’ safety front and center. She quickly mobilized a color-coded system to keep any potential COVID infections from cross-contaminating staff members working on key infrastructure issues.

Others, like Optima Tax Relief, had to switch from a call-center format to a work-from-home setting. CEO David King and his IT team scrambled to configure 700 laptops — in three days during tax season — for his employees.

In what’s been arguably one of the craziest years in this century, many companies found ways to adapt and thrive.

“We’ve adjusted well,” said Jim Andronaco, co-founder of Sidepath in Laguna Hills. “More importantly, our people adjusted well.”

Through all the work-from-home complications, the tech glitches and the divisive politics, bosses said the pandemic pivot helped them get to know their employees better.

“We see the background at home,” said Trevor Tait, managing director at Tait & Associates in Santa Ana. “We get to meet a lot of dogs. We now know people differently.”

This year, 151 employers agreed to take the survey with Top Workplaces partner Energage. Combined, they employ 54,487 people in Orange County. Of the 28,177 employees who received questionnaires, 18,170 responded, either on paper or online. For this year’s winners list, 105 Orange County employers earned recognition as Top Workplaces based on employee feedback.

In a nod to lockdown restrictions and a first for the program, the annual awards gala held each December at the City National Grove of Anaheim was canceled.

Here’s the list of Orange County’s Top Workplaces for 2020.

Large company honorees

1 Experian North America2 New American Funding3 Optima Tax Relief4 Panda Restaurant Group5 MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center6 American Advisors Group7 West Coast University8 Beckman Coulter Inc.9 BEHRProcess Corp.10 MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center

Medium company honorees

1 Moulton Niguel Water District2 Seven Gables Real Estate3 TAIT & ASSOCIATES4 Ivantis Inc5 theLender6 Prime Choice Funding Inc.7 Blue-White Industries Ltd.8 BluePoint Mortgage9 Americor Funding Inc.10 Orion Lending11 SullivanCurtisMonroe Insurance Services LLC12 AmeriHome Mortgage13 SmartFinancial14 Smart Circle International LLC15 Performance Lighting System16 The Word & Brown Family of Companies17 Marque Medical18 Axonics19 Love 2 Learn Consulting LLC20 Seneca Family of Agencies21 American Career College22 Orange County Rescue Mission23 Nations Direct Mortgage LLC24 Veri-Tax LLC25 Seabreeze Management Company Inc.26 Herbalife Innovation and Manufacturing27 Insperity28 Össur Americas29 United Auto Credit Corporation30 Edward Jones31 Service Champions LLC32 Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurant Support Center33 Parcel Pending34 HUB International Insurance Services inc.35 Sovereign Lending Group36 Pacific Mercantile Bank37 CBE Office Solutions38 Heritage Pointe39 Astronics Test Systems40 Medical Specialties Managers Inc.41 Western Resources Title Company42 Burns & McDonnell43 Sunwest Bank44 Advanced Management Company & R³ Construction Services Inc.45 Reborn Cabinets

Small company hnorees

1 Sidepath2 Vantis Capital Advisors3 Fenix Consulting Group4 Voit Real Estate Services5 Optimum Professional Property Management Inc.6 Pinner Construction Company7 Kind Lending8 Better.com9 US Alliance Group Inc.10 Helium 1011 PeopleG212 DEB Construction LLC13 Savills Inc.14 FM Restaurants15 ECOS16 Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP17 BigRentz Inc.18 TechMD19 SurflineWavetrak Inc.20 LCPtracker Inc.21 QuestSoft22 Paramount Residential Mortgage Group Inc.23 Murow Development Consultants24 El Toro Water District25 Southern California Illumination26 CPS Insurance Services27 Essex Mortgage28 Vincit29 DreamHost30 H. Hendy Associates31 PlanNet Consulting LLC32 Advanced Office33 Robert Half34 Portfolio35 SACA Technologies36 Directive37 Advantest Test Solutions Inc.38 Orion Risk Management an Alera Company39 IPS – Integrated Project Services LLC40 System Pavers41 Brown & Streza LLP42 Technologent43 Swift Health Systems dba INBRACE44 Kimco Staffing Services/KTimeHR45 Modern Gourmet Foods46 Evolus Inc.47 Girl Scouts of Orange County48 Wunderman Thompson49 American Income Life – Orange County50 Consolidated Contracting

MORE ONLINE: To read more about the 105 organizations named in the Top Workplaces survey, check our online database at ocregister.com/workplaces

To participate in the 2021 program, go to ocregister.com/nominate.

Staff writers Jeff Collins, Jonathan Lansner and Alicia Robinson contributed to this report.

Read more about Top Workplaces 2020: See the list of Orange County’s winners This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

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Coronavirus: Gov. Newsom and family quarantine after exposure, all test negative

SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his family are quarantining after three of his children were exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said late Sunday.

Newsom, his wife and four children all tested negative for the virus on Sunday, spokesman Jesse Melgar said in an emailed statement.

Newsom was notified Friday evening that a California Highway Patrol member who had contact with three of his children later tested positive for the virus. The California Highway Patrol provides security for Newsom and his family. Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, did not have contact with the officer.

The Newsoms were not tested until Sunday based on advice from health professionals “to improve the accuracy of the test,” Melgar said.

The family is quarantining at their home in Sacramento County. They will be tested regularly, Melgar said. Newsom’s children range in age from 4 to 11.

Read more about Coronavirus: Gov. Newsom and family quarantine after exposure, all test negative This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed

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Some police agencies will not enforce new stay-at-home coronavirus orders, others will do so as a ‘last resort’

Law enforcement officials throughout Southern California said they do not plan on arresting people or issuing fines to those who do not comply with the state’s new late evening curfews, which were ordered to begin Saturday amid a surge of coronavirus infections.

Instead of incarceration or fines, the region’s largest law enforcement agencies said they plan to work with residents in educating them on the public health rules and are asking for people to voluntarily comply.

“Throughout the pandemic, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has taken an education-first approach with regard to public health orders,” Sheriff Don Barnes said in a statement posted shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the new public health order.

The order applies to 90% of the state’s population, covering all counties under the state’s purple tier of restrictions, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Under the order, which begins Saturday, most non-essential work, movement and gatherings of people are to stop between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

However, to keep resources available for other emergency calls, Barnes said, his department will not send its deputies to enforce these restrictions, particularly if the call is solely about a lack of face covering or social gatherings.

Riverside County sheriff’s deputies also will not respond to calls for service in calls about masks and social distancing, said Sheriff Chad Bianco, “to ensure constitutional rights are not violated and to limit potential negative interactions and exposure to our deputies.” Bianco also urged its residents to comply with Gov. Newsom’s orders.

Bianco’s department was slapped with an $18,000 fine earlier this week for violating the state’s COVID-19 regulations at one of its jails in French Valley, which is where a sheriff’s deputy contracted the coronavirus and eventually died. The department is appealing the fine.

In Los Angeles County, where on Thursday health officials announced a record-breaking 5,031 new COVID-19 infections, the highest daily number of the pandemic so far, law enforcement echoed similar statements of voluntary compliance.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his department is also focused on educating residents and asking for voluntary compliance. He added that deputies could be asked to enforce the new rules as “an extreme last resort.”

Though the department plans to respond to complaints about social gatherings that are out of compliance, its patrol deputies will not pull people over or cite people for simply driving or walking amid the curfew hours.

An LAPD spokesman said he expects officers to respond to COVID-19-related calls with a similarly selective approach.

When stay-at-home orders were first issued in March, Los Angeles city officials encouraged people to comply and educate one another on the new rules, reserving enforcement to more serious situations.

Since then, the city has been among the most heavy-handed enforcers of public health rules in the region, utilizing municipal codes, cracking down on non-essential businesses that continued to operate or residents hosting large parties.


LAPD wearing masks due to the Coronavirus Pandemic walks past others wearing masks at Venice Beach in Venice on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

In August, Mayor Eric Garcetti authorized the Department of Water and Power to shut off utilities to homes that continually flouted city orders banning large gatherings.

The directive came amid news of a large party hosted at a home along Mulholland Drive that ended with a fatal shooting, a series of large parties thrown by TikTok stars Bryce Hall and Blake Gray from their Hollywood Hills mansion, and a party at a bar in Hollywood, called the Sassafras Saloon that appeared to have been held in honor of law enforcement officials in which Sheriff’s deputies were possible present.

Hall and Gray face charges that carry hundreds of dollars in fines.

The city of Costa Mesa in Orange County made headlines in July when its city council said it was ready to enforce its mask or face covering mandate in some public places with threat of a ticket or possible fine.

Police have since arrested one individual for violating the order, a man who entered a grocery store on Newport Boulevard without a mask and refused to cooperate with store staff and later, law enforcement, said Roxi Ryad, spokeswoman for Costa Mesa police.

The city is also directing its officers to educate first, hoping that residents will comply with the orders, Ryad said.

A spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said officials are still reviewing the recent order and have yet to take a position on how the department will enforce it.

The order was announced Thursday as coronavirus cases surged statewide. The state reported more new infections in the past week than during any other seven-day period, and hospitalizations and deaths are increasing too.

Earlier this week, counties that had been previously in the less restrictive red tier, such as Orange County, were bumped into the purple tier, once again shutting down indoor operations for restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, and houses of worship.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge. We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom wrote in a news release. “It is crucial that we act to decrease transmission and slow hospitalizations before the death count surges. We’ve done it before and we must do it again.”

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