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California paid a price for mask shortage in dollars and lives, coronavirus study finds

Melody Gutierrez, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- At least 15,800 essential workers would not have contracted COVID-19 if California had stockpiled enough masks and other protective equipment, while the state would have saved $93 million weekly on unemployment claims for out-of-work health care workers and avoided overpaying for supplies, according to a study released Wednesday.

The University of California, Berkeley Labor Center study urges California officials to stockpile masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment in the coming years to avoid shortages seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers currently pushing a bill that would create a state stockpile said the UC Berkeley report demonstrates that California needs a plan to ensure personal protective equipment shortages aren't as sharply felt during a future health care crisis.

"What this UC Berkeley study shows is the cost of not being ready is very high," said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who along with state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, authored Senate Bill 275 to create a state stockpile of masks and other supplies.

"How do you say, looking at these numbers, we don't need to do this?" Leyva said of the bill, which is making its way through the Legislature.

The UC Berkeley report, which received no outside funding, says California likely spent around $93 million in unemployment benefits every week for health care workers who were unable to work when the state suspended elective surgeries and limited other nonemergency care to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and preserve masks for the most critical care.

Between March 15 and July 11, approximately 251,100 health care workers in California filed an initial unemployment claim. Most worked in outpatient care, according to data provided to the report's authors from the California Employment Development Department, which processes jobless claims.


The study also found that dozens of deaths of essential workers could have been prevented if there was adequate personal protective equipment, with the report's authors saying their "conservative estimate" was that "at least 15,800 essential worker-related COVID-19 cases may have been avoidable."

"It was one shocking number after another as I looked at this," said report co-author William Dow, a professor of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. "Based on these numbers, we should be building a stockpile for the future."

Under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying and storing equipment and supplies needed for a large-scale emergency, such as a public health crisis or natural disaster. With the threat of avian flu in 2006 as the impetus behind the effort, the state assembled a cache of needed supplies, including 50 million N95 respirators, according to a Center for Investigative Reporting story published in the Los Angeles Times.

However, in 2011 the state cut off money for storing and maintaining the stockpile under then-Gov. Jerry Brown. By the time COVID-19 began spreading in California earlier this year, there were 21 million masks in the state's stockpile -- but the equipment had expired and was ultimately only approved for low-risk settings.


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