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LATEST UPDATES: Racial Justice | Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

California Becomes COVID-19 Hot Spot

Cover image for podcast episode

PHOTO BY MATTHEW BOWLER

Above: A San Diego county employee explains the testing process to a person with an appointment at a San Diego County COVID 19 testing station by the SDCCU Stadium on May 18, 2020.

A recent surge pushes California to the top of the list for new COVID-19 cases, local parents form learning pods to help their kids' virtual education, and how uneven funding in the public justice system creates an advantage for prosecutors.

Speaker 1: 00:01 The number of Corona virus cases and deaths March ever upward as tensions persist over the need to impose restrictions and the desire to resume normal activities with classrooms close for now, parents get creative by forming backyard, pandemic pods. So kids can learn and socialize in small groups and prosecutors enjoy big advantages over defense attorneys in criminal trials, the impact of inequities in our judicial system. I'm Mark Sauer and the KPPs round table starts. Now.

Speaker 2: 00:40 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:41 Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today. Taryn mento health reporter for KPBS news, Kristen Takita education reporter for the San Diego union Tribune and watchdog reporter Jeff McDonald, also of the union Tribune. The first reported case of COVID-19 in San Diego was on March 9th. Now, here we are 15 weeks later, and there's no end in sight. This week alone. We saw a daily high in reported deaths with 18 on Wednesday, along with nearly 600 new cases. And those who work in our hospitals are once again, sounding the alarm that they need more help joining us to sort through the headlines is KPBS health reporter Terren mental. Hi Terran. Hey Mark. So explain to us the brief drop and then followed by a surge in new cases this week. Do health officials have an idea of what's behind it? Are there theories out there?

Speaker 2: 01:37 Right. So, you know, we've been hearing about this case surge. We've had cases over 500 cases over 600 and some days. And then, you know, earlier this week we got down to three 85 and it had been kind of a decline and people were probably very hopeful about it. But then as you just mentioned, I'm back up to 587 cases on Wednesday and Thursday officials reported 501 positive. So, um, obviously it wasn't, um, or so far we hasn't been shown to be a downward trend, but we've seen these kinds of fluctuations before. It's not unusual for that to happen, especially earlier in the week, testing results can be delayed. So you're getting results from testing done maybe days ago. Um, and if that's testing done over the weekend, that's when a lot of sites are closed. So there's the amount of tests might be lower, you know, in the County notes, you know, sometimes it gets batches of earlier tests included in these daily case reports. So there's a lot that has to do with just when things are reported that can maybe change from day to day. And that's possibly what they are.

Speaker 1: 02:37 Some communities in South Bay where the hardest hit is that still the case amid this latest search.

Speaker 2: 02:43 So, you know, looking at a map of the County by zip codes, certainly we are still seeing a large number of cases in the South Bay area. And there's a very large Latino population in that area. And we know that Latinos are disproportionately affected, not only in terms of cases, but you know, deaths too. And that Chicano Federation is calling on the County to improve its outreach efforts in the Latino communities and in, and you know, the County this week also itself said, it, it, it is working to do that. It's, um, it's increasing its outreach campaign, more digital radio and TV ads and Spanish and English, you know, encouraging, encouraging safety, uh, practices like facial covering. So it is a little bit difficult to track, but certainly in that community, another hotspot we've seen is alcohol. Another hotspot that my colleague Claire triglyceride wrote about recently was also Pacific beach. And there's a couple of zip codes up in North County. So yeah, definitely huge numbers of cases in the South Bay. We've seen that for a while, but we've seen other hotspots pop up as well.

Speaker 1: 03:41 Clearly we need to get a lot smarter over all as we go along now, dr. Wilma Wooten, the County health officer said we need to get daily cases down to around 230. That's less than half of what we're seeing lately in the numbers you're talking about. Seems like a heavy lift given what we're going through.

Speaker 2: 03:57 Yeah, I didn't, you know, I don't, I don't know if there's much more to say about that, Mark. I mean, we're talking about 587 cases on Wednesday 501 on Thursday. I mean, to get it down to two 34, which is, you know, what we were at weeks ago, if not months ago. Um, and so we've seen, we've had more reopenings than closings, you know, so it's gonna probably take a lot of, I think what the County is pushing is compliance with the safety measures that they're talking about, and those are the same ones we've constantly been hearing about, which is wearing your mask or your facial covering, making sure you're constantly washing your hands. Don't touch your face socially distance, making sure that you're staying six feet away and don't gather people they've been, we haven't heard about too many outbreaks linked to private residences, but those were early on, on where a lot of outbreaks were being, um, linked back to, um, since then it was, you know, restaurants and bars, and there's a variety of other businesses that it's being linked back to you. But also the issue is, is gatherings as well.

Speaker 1: 04:57 So say the same message again and again, what more can they do now, County supervisors this week discuss what's being called the safe reopening compliance team. What's that

Speaker 2: 05:07 This is going to be what it looks like a partnership between the County and cities to take staff members, employees probably, um, their code enforcement teams to, to kind of not patrol, but to respond to complaints that maybe the county's aware of or to, um, that's reported through to one, one about these, uh, businesses that maybe need a little bit help, um, or who are refusing. We've heard about that. Some gyms are refusing to, to close down, even though the governor ordered it. Um, you know, about more than a week ago, about a week ago, actually. So these are teams that are going to respond to, uh, in further and force the public health orders, especially with, with businesses who are being openly defiant of the rules. And we're we're, we expect to hear more details about that. That's kind of only been, you know, uh, this week. Um, and so we hope to hear more details about that next week. That's what dr. Wooten said. We would hear

Speaker 1: 06:03 Now backing up a little, the national case numbers are really scary. Now it took 99 days to reach 1 million cases in the U S 43 days to get the 2,000,028 days to get to 3 million in just 15 days now to get the 4 million this week and on a, that was on Thursday and now California is seen as the country's hotspot, even though we shut down early as, as anybody in the country, uh, daily new cases in the state hit 13,000 earlier this week, explanation for why the numbers are taking off after California's earlier success. Is it just more of what we're talking about in San Diego County? And, uh, it's, it's difficult to put their finger on it,

Speaker 2: 06:39 You know, Wilma Wu and has kind of linked, um, a case surge back to reopening, uh, in, in early mid June. So there is talk about, did we, um, and not just San Diego, did, uh, the state move a little too fast with reopening, you know, there's a great report by the Los Angeles times, Taron Luna, and, um, I love giving praise to fellow colleagues that do great work, but she and I share the same name. So I especially love giving her a shout out. Um, you know, she did, um, she did a great, you know, article at the time was pointing out that, you know, we reopened before the state meant some of its own benchmarks specifically with testing. You know, the governor has said that the counties, uh, tested that they were able to meet state criteria before they could open. And then there's this debate over local control and the County, um, you know, public health officials all across the state attested that they could handle this.

Speaker 2: 07:32 Um, but then it just, you know, we saw more state guidance coming down from more and more sectors that these counties who had previously attested that they could, they could meet certain phases were then allowed to add on. And so there is the question, was it a little bit too much too fast, but we did expect some kind of bump anyways from reopening, just cause it was more people interacting. Um, you know, and that's why counties like us, the County has these triggers that alerts them when activity is just spreading a little bit too much, and we need to pull back

Speaker 1: 08:03 Ratcheted back. Well, nurses raised the alarm this week. They're not getting the equipment they need again. Governor Newsome touched on that and talked about how the state's working to supply more masks. What have you heard about the situation at our hospitals in the ability to work safely?

Speaker 2: 08:18 So we have those triggers that, um, that I mentioned, these are metrics that the County is monitoring to make sure that things aren't getting, you know, beyond our control. And one of those looks at hospital resources and specifically it looks at PPE supply, personal protective equipment supply and that's gowns and, and, uh, facial coverings and masks and, and booties over your feet, um, gloves, et cetera. And so the County makes to make sure that every, um, at least half of the counties, hospitals have at least 15 day supply of this. And right now we are, we are, I think it's about maybe 72% of County hospitals have that kind of supply. So locally, um, we seem be doing, um, you know, as pretty well or okay. Um, and I haven't heard about too many, um, facilities getting into dire situations, but there are questions, you know, just statewide about these materials, these PPE materials that the state is procuring and where they're going and how the state is deciding where to send them and what their quality is. Um, that was talked about by the governor earlier this week. Um, it didn't, there weren't a lot of specifics, but, um, I expect that a lot of journalists will be following up on this and I myself will be reaching out to some local, um, hospital systems and healthcare providers to kind of find out if we can learn more about that.

Speaker 1: 09:34 Well, that's one question and story that you're looking at, and of course your beat, the health beat is very busy. Uh, other stories and questions you're chasing as we move ahead into the next week or two.

Speaker 2: 09:43 Yeah. And it's, I'm happy to talk about it. Cause if I talk about it, that means that I actually have to do this, this, this is great. It's going to hold me accountable. Um, you know, one of the things that I'm, I'm, I'm definitely moving forward on is helping the public to understand how this flow of information, when we're talking about the triggers, how are we getting the information that the County is calculating and then reporting out to the public, out to journalists, how has that flow of information happening? And it's, there's a lot of steps there. And so I'm going back to a number of different healthcare providers and labs to learn more about that. Um, but then kind of, um, on the non COVID side, but also still COVID chronic illnesses and intriguing and disease, you know, cancer is still happening to people. People still need to get these kinds of critical care and treatment, but it really, really complicates things. Um, and so I'm looking into how do we continue, um, to make sure that that kind of care is getting to people who need it and who are, or are sick right now at a time where, um, being out to go get your care is kind of nerve wracking.

Speaker 1: 10:43 I've been speaking with KPBS health reporter, Taren mento. You can find her work at KPBS dot O R G Tara. Thanks for joining us today. Thanks so much. Mark parents, teachers, politicians, employers, and students have all been saying the same thing since schooling moved from home computers in the spring. Kids need to get back in classrooms as much for the social benefits as for the book learning, but that's not going to happen anytime soon in San Diego and most of the nation amid this pandemic. So some parents have gotten creative joining me to discuss a new trend in education is Kristen Takita education reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Kristen, welcome back to the round table. Hi, thank you for having me. So we're talking about learning pods or pandemic pods is summer called explain the idea behind this new thing.

Speaker 2: 11:31 Yeah, they're also kind of sometimes called micro schools, but that's basically what it is, is like a mini classroom or a mini school. And they kind of take on different forms, but basically it's a small group of children and their families are usually the ones organizing this, but it's a small group of kids that meet basically for classes

Speaker 3: 11:54 Like that. It's either parents might be leading the pod or they might hire teachers or tutors to help lead the pod. But basically there's an adult, at least one adult there helping the kids with distance learning assignments that they get from their school district or from their school, or they're just helping them with learning in general or some, some of the pods are more just for social reasons, um, just to get kids together so that they have some, you know, social outlet or some chance to have play dates with other kids just because everyone's been so isolated with these school closures. And that's like one of the main concerns that everyone is having is that the closures are impacting students' mental health. So this is supposed to be, this is meant to be one of the solutions for that.

Speaker 1: 12:45 Yeah. Life can't be all done on screens alone. So you interviewed Lauren home and the mother of a second grader in San Marcos about forming her pod. Tell us what she's organized. How does it work? Yes.

Speaker 3: 12:56 So she organized her pod by basically getting in touch with parents. She knows through her school already. Um, her child's school fortunate in that she already had that kind of a network. So the parents basically just organized it together. There's since it's going to be led by the parents themselves, they are not going to have fees. Like a lot of other pods will in terms of fees for teachers or tutors. But Lauren is also fortunate in that she herself was a teacher and she said, one of the other parents in her pod is also a teacher. So they have that benefit of already having a teaching experience to help lead the pod. And so, yeah, the parents basically we'll just take turns leading the pod and hosting it either in a backyard, their home backyard or a park they'll take turns, hosting it and watching over the kids. And, um, there's about roughly half a dozen kids at a time in the pod, I believe. And so it's kind of like a parent sharing parents sharing the responsibility of teaching and watching the kids. So it's like a sharing

Speaker 1: 14:02 And another parent, your story said he was so desperate. He was considering moving to another country to get his kids back in school. Tell us about Scott wrap and his experience.

Speaker 3: 14:11 Yeah. So Scott has actually started the local, one of the local San Diego pod chapters over the weekend after he heard that governor Newsome is keeping schools in San Diego County closed until our COVID gets better. But yeah, in the beginning, as he was leading up to the governor's announcement, he was considering he was going to move to a private school because he thought that a private school would be more able to have in person school than the school district he was in. So he's been really, he's been really wanting in person school for his kids because they're so young. I think his oldest is five years old. At one point he was even considering moving his family to Sweden where they didn't close schools because in his family also likes to travel and they could work from home. But yeah, so he was very desperate to find a in person option. So the pod was what he came up with since that was the most realistic one he could focus on right now,

Speaker 1: 15:08 As you say, Lauren Holman has experienced as a teacher, but some other pods are hiring tutors that can get pricey for parents.

Speaker 3: 15:16 Right? Definitely. I mean, the rates are kind of all over the map, but I've seen number of rates over $50 an hour. And so that's where, you know, we kind of get into these questions of equity because if you don't have somebody who is, who has that teaching experience or is able to lead a pod, then then at that point, it's almost like it could be a resource that is only available to families who can afford the extra money to pay for all this extra support for their kids. And I mean, that just goes with the whole narrative of equity that's been going on since the pandemic started for schools. I think Scott rep, uh, estimated that a pandemic pod could cost, uh, as much as $270 a week per student. So that totals up to a lot of money for some families

Speaker 1: 16:07 Now pushing eight, 900, a thousand dollars a month, I can get really pricey. And that is, that is the argument though that, uh, some kids who have advantages over low income students anyway, because, uh, their parents and their neighborhood schools and what they can afford in school. And it's kind of the same thing when you get into this private pod situation, right? And, uh, before wrapping up, I wanted to ask you about another story you did involving a conservative attorney in a group that's suing governor Newsome over his order, closing classrooms for the time being, because of COVID-19 who is she? And what's the thrust of her lawsuit.

Speaker 3: 16:40 So the lawsuit is being learned by this group called center for American Liberty. That group is led by Harmeet Dhillon, who is a member of the Republican national committee, and she's an attorney. So their argument for that lawsuit is that by Newsome forcing schools to close, and most of the States counties that is effectively denying the kids in those counties, a meaningful education by blocking them from the chance to have in person school. And then the lawsuit includes several families who are plaintiffs and who are, you know, just have stories of how the school closures have really harmed their kids either in terms of social or mental development or in terms of academics or both. And so this is kind of going along with that home pushback or arguments against the school closures and that desperation of parents who want in person school again,

Speaker 1: 17:39 Is Harmeet Dhillon and group likely to get anywhere with this lawsuit.

Speaker 3: 17:43 I'm not sure I'm not, I wouldn't be the best to say, but, um, the governor's office response, this lawsuit, the governor mentioned that like no federal court has so far ruled against the governor's COBIT actions. So, I mean, I think the governor is just saying that our, the governor's office is saying that he did this school closure order in using his emergency authority, um, regarding COVID. So, and he did do this because he said, you know, this is necessary for keeping students and staff safe. And this is just happening in the midst of the ongoing Corona virus surge. And so a lot of people are saying that they wouldn't be comfortable and going back to school because of the growing current virus cases,

Speaker 4: 18:31 The way it is in the midst of a public health crisis. I've been speaking with union Tribune, education reporter, Kristen Takita thanks, Kristen. Very much. Yeah, you're welcome. The overwhelming majority of people arrested and then charged for the crime are guilty in San Diego and across the nation. And the vast majority of criminal cases plead out and never go to trial. Our judicial system could not function if it were otherwise, but it's also true that the prosecution on behalf of the people enjoys deep advantages in this adversarial system. Joining me to discuss inequities in the court system is watchdog reporter Jeff McDonald of the San Diego union Tribune. We'll just start with some basic facts. How many defendants cannot afford an attorney and what happens in those cases? Well, the majority of defendants can't afford their own attorney. It's about 80%. The district attorney's office told me one in five defendants can afford to hire their own lawyer.

Speaker 4: 19:24 And that leads to the rest, to the Kennedy public defender and a that's that's an agency just like the district attorney on the other side of the aisle. And they get assigned somebody, an experienced attorney. And, um, and they've got a lot of cases, don't they? Yes, the case loads can be very high, uh, in San Diego that neither the prosecutor or the, uh, or the public defender is, is, um, hugely bothered by the, uh, the discrepancy in the budgets. Uh, it's a little unfair comparing budgets, but I found it the only way to really look at, uh, you know, how we set our priorities as a, as a County. Um, the da budget is about two and a half times the public defender, but they're quick to say they do a lot of other services besides prosecuting defendants, and then the da points out that they have to work every case up as if it were going to trial, even though most plead out. Yes, there's a lot of legwork involved in getting to the point. They say, where they have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable, reasonable doubt. In addition to that, they get brought cases from police departments across the County that don't result in criminal charges cases. They have to spend time and money and staff hours investigating before making a determination that they're not worth going to criminal charges. So there's an, there's an invisible caseload that the public doesn't see that the district attorney also has to review and investigate. And, and we've had

Speaker 1: 20:48 A number of notable cases here and across the country in recent years, where defendants were falsely accused of terrible crimes, including murder and child sexual abuse and acquitted at trial, or the convictions were overturned often by DNA evidence after defendant served many years. Are these injustices the result of this inequality that's built into the system?

Speaker 4: 21:09 Well, I would hate to say yes, that seemed to be a generalization, but, uh, yeah, people get convicted wrongly all the time. Partly because of the way the system is stacked up against them. Public defenders sometimes don't have the resources they need. Now, again, the San Diego public defender insisted that he has never had to say no to a client, uh, for budgetary reasons. That's not always the case in other jurisdictions. In fact, the state and Fresno County were sued a few years ago because, uh, the majority of public defenders in that County wrote a letter complaining that they had 150 cases each, which was way over the guidelines, that case recently saddled with a promise by Fresno County to divert more resources to the public defender's office.

Speaker 1: 21:55 And of course, the, as you say, the public defender here is not really complaining about budget size, but it would just stand to reason if they had more money, that would be more attorneys, more investigators to work on cases, et cetera, maybe a swing the balance a little more equally between them and the advantages the da has. Right?

Speaker 4: 22:13 Yes, that's, that's what he said. Now. He did say he had, uh, he had a wishlist of things that he would like, and they didn't include more, uh, attorneys or more investigators. What he wants is staffing for additional programs that he thinks will help head off prosecutions. In the first case, social service programs, mental health services, housing assistance, things like that, that you wouldn't necessarily presume a public defender to be involved with, but he's looking at it from a higher level. And seeing if you can put his clients in a position where they're not going to be arrested or charged or commit crimes that will, that will lower the crime rate and reduce his case load at the same time.

Speaker 1: 22:53 Well, that leads me neatly into my next question here. I wanted to get to, before we wrap up, we're in the midst of a period of criminal justice reform, including an easing on the tough on crime legislation in recent decades, that's resulted in millions of Americans behind bars, plus movements to reform city police departments, following the George Floyd killing and subsequent protests, is that effecting the working relationship between the DA's office and the public defender are we seeing moves toward reform there, you know, the sort of things you're saying about, uh, doing different types of things to keep cases from, uh, from getting to the court system to begin with,

Speaker 4: 23:30 It's certainly affecting this district attorney and in this public defender, as much as any across the country, because these have been remarkable shows of, uh, of demands for change, uh, from coast to coast. Uh, however that said, uh, these two officials have a pretty collegial relationship and, uh, having mutual respect the jobs they each do, they both have more initiatives. They would like to implement more programs. They'd like to start. Neither of them are sure how it's going to shake out. And now San Diego hasn't adopted its budget yet both the district attorney and the public defender told me they don't expect to get additional resources this go around because of the decline in revenues, due to the pandemic. So some of this stuff is going to have to wait and you interviewed a district attorney summer Stephan, and she said, she's got her own wishlist and has some things in mind going forward toward the same kind of reforms we're talking about here, right?

Speaker 4: 24:22 Yes, yes. They both are committed to, uh, uh, ensuring justice and, and both of them take their worries. Seriously. I didn't sense the animosity between them that you would expect, and that you've certainly seen in other jurisdictions around the country. But as I said, we thought that this was a good time to examine the respective roles and their respective budgets of the two offices, given all the attention that social and ratio racial equity issues have been coming forward. Have you gotten a lot of feedback and reactions to your story? I did get a lot. Yes. Some people thought I was glorifying the, uh, the, uh, public defender and, uh, and, uh, denigrating or questioning the prosecutor's roles. Some thought it was preposterous for think tank types to come forward with ideas like holding prosecutors accountable when they lose cases. But that's not workable at the same time.

Speaker 4: 25:11 I got a lot of positive feedback from readers saying that, uh, it's important to explore these sorts of issues, especially at the time like this, when we're having a national reckoning on the equity issues, it makes for a very good conversation. Well, I've been speaking with union Tribune, watchdog reporter, Jeff McDonald. Thanks very much, Jeff. You bet. Thank you, Mark. That wraps up another week of stories on the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Jeff McDonald of the San Diego union Tribune, Taren, mento of KPBS news and Kristen, Takita also with the union Tribune. If you ever miss a show, you can catch up with the round table podcast available on your favorite podcast app. I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and be with us again next week on the round table.

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KPBS Roundtable

Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.