After two years in a pandemic that has killed nearly 85,000 Californians and infected more than 8 million in the state, California policymakers are deciding how to proceed under COVID-19.
For Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration, the next phase includes monitoring the virus across the state through wastewater surveillance and deploying targeted tests and other resources for communities that begin to experience rising case numbers.
For state lawmakers, it could mean new vaccine mandates for workers and students, cracking down on misinformation, and renewed oversight of Newsom’s pandemic spending.
Several Democratic lawmakers formed a legislative vaccine workgroup earlier this year and have introduced bills aimed at closing the remaining vaccine gaps and targeting misinformation about the pandemic.
Republican lawmakers are more focused on the state’s spending during the pandemic and ending the state of emergency, which they argue gives Newsom too much power.
Here’s a look at some of the bills that would impact COVID-19 in California and the state’s response to the pandemic:
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Workplace vaccine requirement
AB1993 by Assembly member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) would require all workers and contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Employers would have to affirm their workers’ vaccine status and could possibly face financial penalties for not complying.
Wicks argues the bill would help keep workers safe and reduce staffing issues and workplace outbreaks.
“There are many jobs that can’t be done remotely, and employers have a responsibility to keep their employees safe while on the job,” the Oakland Democrat said when she introduced the bill, adding that “the pathway to endemic is through vaccines.”
It would include religious and medical exemptions. Wicks said she welcomes input from the business community on the bill as it moves through the Legislature. The California Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the bill yet.
School vaccine requirement
SB871 by Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and longtime vaccine proponent in the state Capitol, would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for California’s school children. That would also bar students from receiving exemptions for personal or religious reasons. Medical exemptions would still be allowed.
Newsom announced a vaccine requirement for students that would take effect after a vaccine receives full FDA approval, which has not yet been granted for children younger than 16. That requirement would allow for religious exemptions — only the Legislature can remove religious exemptions for school immunizations.
Child vaccinations are lagging behind other age groups. According to the state dashboard, less than 38% of children aged 5-11 have received at least one dose. Meanwhile, 87% of Californians aged 18-49 and 92% of 50-64-year-olds have received at least one dose.
Tracking misinformation on social media
Another bill by Pan, SB1018, would require social media companies to make their algorithms publicly available and share them with researchers.
Pan says it would give the public a look at how certain posts containing false information about COVID-19 have spread widely.
Studies have shown falsehoods can spread faster than truth online. Pan says it has had a devastating impact during the pandemic, with misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine taking hold and leading to confusion and doubts about the vaccine.
“It should not be left to a handful of essentially very rich tech executives to decide what happens to our society and how we respond to a pandemic,” he said in an online press conference announcing the bill.
Tech companies are likely to oppose the bill and argue their algorithms for promoting content are protected intellectual property.
Cracking down on misinformation from doctors
Another measure focused on pandemic misinformation would allow the California Medical Board to discipline physicians who spread false information about COVID-19, by classifying it as “unprofessional conduct.”
Proponents say AB2098 from Assembly member Evan Low (D-Campbell) would be used only to go after physicians spreading blatant lies about the pandemic, including proven falsehoods about the safety of vaccines or how well they protected against the delta variant.
While Low says the medical board has the ability to discipline doctors, it is largely complaint-based and AB2098 would give the body the ability to be more proactive.
“This isn't a call for a policing of free speech,” said Dr. Nicolas Sawyer, a Sacramento emergency room doctor and executive director of No License for Disinformation, a group that advocates for policies like what Low is proposing. “This is a call for protecting the public against dangerous misinformation, which patients are parroting back to us in our emergency departments every day.”
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Ending the state of emergency
The California Emergency Services Act allows the state government to sidestep normal rules to deal with an emergency. The Newsom administration has used it during the pandemic for everything from authorizing public meetings via teleconference to awarding no-bid contracts for personal protective equipment and vaccine distribution.
Newsom has argued the emergency order has helped his administration get vaccines out quickly, support hospitals and more. Some Republican lawmakers have argued for nearly a year that Newsom has abused his emergency powers during the pandemic and that the state of emergency is no longer necessary.
Melendez has tried for months to have the bill heard in the Legislature. In late February, Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) announced it would get a committee hearing on March 15.
“I understand we are all tired of living life in an emergency, but ending the emergency must be done responsibly to ensure there are no unintended consequences so we can continue to meet the need of our state’s residents in an unpredictable future,” Atkins said in a statement.
Last week, the Newsom administration announced plans to wind down 95% of the more than 500 remaining provisions from his pandemic executive orders.
Restricting no-bid contracts
Another attempt by Republicans to restrict the governor’s pandemic spending is Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk’s SB1367. It would ban the state from accepting no-bid contracts from companies that made a charitable donation on behalf of the governor in the previous year.
Companies donated $226 million to charity on Newsom’s behalf in 2020, mostly for COVID-19 relief causes, in the form of behested payments, in which a person or company donates to a cause on behalf of an elected official. Behested payments must be reported to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
During the pandemic, the state has awarded multi-million-dollar contracts to companies that have donated to Newsom’s political campaigns and preferred charities.
Blue Shield of California was among the companies that made a behested payment to a charitable cause on behalf of Newsom in 2020.
School testing plans
SB1479 would require school districts to create plans to test students and staff for COVID-19 in case of future outbreaks. Tests would be provided by the state.
It is authored by Sen. Richard Pan, who argues testing can help isolate cases and prevent outbreaks, which would help students and educators stay healthy and prevent staff shortages. But the bill does not include specific enforcement or requirements that districts follow through on their testing plans.
Other bills of note
Other bills would allow children as young as 12 to get vaccinated without parental consent, update the state’s immunization registry and require hospitals to provide personal protective equipment and regular testing to their employees.A law passed earlier this year requires employers with more than 25 workers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave. Workers can use the time off if they get sick from COVID-19, to care for a family member, or to get vaccinated.
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