California Dismantles Another Piece of Its Pandemic Response

Piece by piece, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and state lawmakers are pulling down pillars of California’s emergency COVID response — even as the test positivity rate begins to tick back up.

The latest cornerstone to fall, less than two years after it was built: California’s $25 million COVID testing lab. As first reported by CBS Sacramento’s Julie Watts, the state Department of Public Health in a March 31 letter notified diagnostics company PerkinElmer that its no-bid contract worth as much as $1.7 billion to operate the Valencia Branch Laboratory would end on May 15, months ahead of schedule.

The letter reads: “As highlighted by the California SMARTER plan, Antigen testing is now a major component of our ongoing testing response. … It is time for California to leverage the now sufficient laboratory capacity of the commercial market and the flexibility it brings.”

What the letter didn’t mention: Problems so pervasive that they triggered both state and federal investigations and repeated warnings from state health officials that the Valencia Branch Laboratory could lose its license. Indeed, just 10 days before the state auto-renewed PerkinElmer’s year-long contract in October, inspectors were threatening sanctions for major deficiencies.

It’s unclear what the state plans to do with the lab moving forward, CapRadio reports. PerkinElmer is preparing to lay off 75 California-based employees.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill to protect from retaliation employees of certain companies awarded no-bid state contracts if they lodge complaints alleging “improper governmental activities.” The legislation was inspired by the whistleblowers who helped break the news of the Valencia Branch Laboratory’s deficiencies.

And while the Newsom administration pares back other COVID regulations, the majority of Democratic lawmakers’ slate of aggressive vaccine bills have either been stalled or watered down.

The latest proposal to be tabled: Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento’s bill to withhold state funding from law enforcement agencies that oppose public health orders. Pan, who had already twice delayed a key hearing on the bill, cancelled a third that had been slated for Wednesday.

“Public health officers … are public safety officers whose work protects more lives than almost any other profession, although that work is often taken for granted,” said Pan.

Of the eight vaccine bills, three are tabled, two have yet to be scheduled for a hearing, one was significantly amended Tuesday and two face key hearings next week.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans Wednesday to appeal a Monday ruling that struck down the federal mask mandate on public transportation, California health care employees are seeking stronger protections in their own workplaces.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 8,550,657 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 89,054 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 74,361,797 vaccine doses, and 75.2% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.


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