Looking Past the COVID Peak
As I write this, COVID-19 cases have peaked and begun falling, and we appear to have passed the worst of the surge caused by the Omicron variant.
We still have a very large number of active cases, and hospitalization and fatality numbers lag several weeks behind positive tests, but there is reason to be hopeful. More than 83% of San Franciscans are fully vaccinated, and that level of collective immune protection, combined with reduced severity of Omicron for vaccinated people, means that both the hospitalization and death rate per COVID-19 case are lower than they were during the Delta surge, and we have been able to keep businesses, schools and essential services open. After more than two years of this pandemic, we know things can shift quickly. This may be old news by the time this column is in your hands or on your screen. You can always find the most up-to-date local COVID-19 data and guidance at sf.gov/topics/coronavirus-covid-19.
With Omicron, our City’s approach has evolved along with the virus. The Department of Public Health is shifting from a pandemic response towards endemic management. This doesn’t mean COVID-19 is gone or going away. It means we’re understanding it’s likely going to be a permanent fixture – like influenza – and we must learn to live with it by taking the best protective steps we can, like getting vaccinated and masking when needed, and layering our defenses and precautions. The local public health goal is no longer to reach zero cases, but to manage them while preventing hospitalizations and deaths and keeping essential services open.
I know we all long for a clear finish line, a mission-accomplished moment marking the end of this virus and the beginning of life after it. I wish I could say it was coming. Like so much else in the world, it’s a risk we’ll continue to manage. This means continuing to adapt and taking the hard lessons of the past years to heart. One of them has become increasingly clear: while the virus did not end, many of the emergency policies addressing it did.
Early in the pandemic, we saw local, state and the federal governments move swiftly and boldly to expand access to paid leave for workers impacted by COVID-19. Those policies saved lives, and livelihoods. Here in San Francisco, I wrote and passed the Public Health Emergency Leave ordinance in April of 2020 and reenacted it every 60 days for more than a year. But, our legal ability to keep that emergency law in place ended, and so did its vital benefits.
Public Health Emergency Leave gave more than 200,000 San Francisco workers impacted by the pandemic access to an additional two weeks of fully paid leave. Earlier this month, I introduced a ballot measure for the June 7 election to make it permanent, so we’re more prepared for future variants, future surges and future health emergencies of many kinds, including future pandemics and unhealthy air quality days resulting from wildfires. If passed, the Public Health Emergency Leave ballot measure will allow San Francisco workers to take additional paid leave during public health emergencies to quarantine, to take care of themselves or to take care of their loved ones.
This measure exempts small businesses that are still struggling to recover, is carefully crafted to protect emergency responder and public health staffing levels, and also expands on the emergency legislation by making Public Health Emergency Leave available for impacted workers during unhealthy air quality days driven by our increasingly severe wildfire seasons. Climate change continues to exacerbate our wildfire seasons. Future fires may be more dangerous than any before. Also, the past two years have shown how deeply vulnerable we are to new and mutating pathogens. We need laws that reflect the urgency and the gravity of these threats and provide safety and security in the face of them. I hope to bring this important safety net to the June ballot and to the working people of San Francisco.
And COVID-19 isn’t the only virus we’ve faced: a deeply rooted culture of corruption across City government has led to six heads of city departments being removed or resigning in scandal in just the past couple of years. In May of 2019 – before Mohammed Nuru was criminally charged, before the pandemic, before the Controller’s Public Integrity reviews, and before the former general manager of the SFPUC resigned in scandal – I commissioned an audit of the SFPUC’s Social Impact Partnerships program after labor leaders expressed concerns about contract oversight and management. While waiting for the audit results, I submitted two Letters of Inquiry and a subpoena motion to secure financial documents and meeting records. That led to the creation of a contracting dashboard that will soon be made public. Finally, the results of the audit were released and our concerns were validated.
It found that the Social Impact Partnership program lacked the basic controls necessary to prevent fraud and corruption. This program is intended to serve an important goal and can deliver millions of dollars in benefits for our communities. But only if it’s transparent, accountable and effective. Unfortunately, the program has fallen far short of that.
In January I held a hearing on this audit report and held both the auditors and the SFPUC accountable to take necessary actions to learn if there was any fraud or abuse of power, and to make sweeping changes to prevent any possibility of abuse going forward. Today, we have new leadership at the SFPUC; and, finally, some commitments to act. Government requires the trust of the public to function. This program has failed that trust, and the public deserves answers. I am committed to ensuring the City takes every action needed to address these shortcomings.
Gordon Mar represents District 4 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He can be reached at 415-554-7460 or email@example.com.
Categories: City Hall