Newsletter: Essential California Week in Review: Amid Omicron warnings, guarded hope


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, Jan. 22.

Here’s a look at the top stories of the last week

There’s cautious optimism as coronavirus transmission rates have begun to fall across California. After weeks of an unprecedented spike in cases that challenged hospitals, schools and other institutions, there were signs the surge caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant was flattening. Still, the situation at many hospitals was worsening as admissions and demand for emergency room services soared. More children were hospitalized with COVID, renewing fears for medically fragile youngsters. And on Friday, Los Angeles County health officials were continuing to urge the public to avoid nonessential gatherings.

“Suspicious” disability insurance claims were frozen — and maybe some legitimate ones, too. California announced that it had frozen 345,000 disability insurance claims, battling scammers targeting its benefits system. The state said it suspected the claims were fraudulently filed using stolen credentials of doctors and other medical providers. Among those claims there may be some that are legit, which could delay disability checks to Californians who need them.

PG&E is a “continuing menace,” according to a judge. The utility’s probation is nearing its end. PG&E maintains that it has become “a fundamentally safer company” over the course of five years of felony probation. The judge supervising the company disagrees, saying in a scathing report that, even as he tried to rehabilitate it, the company went on a “crime spree.”


Native Americans are working to be rid of the name Squaw Valley. They say it’s a racist and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women. But a white county supervisor for the unincorporated area of Fresno County that goes by that name is opposed and says context matters. At the heart of the battle is who gets to decide whether the term is offensive.

California was supposed to clear cannabis convictions, but tens of thousands are still languishing. When voters legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2016, one promise was the creation of a legal pathway through the courts for clearing many past marijuana-related convictions or reducing them to a lesser charge. It was a step meant to right many of the injustices inflicted by the nation’s war on drugs that was disproportionately waged on poor people and communities of color. But despite a 2018 law intended to speed up and automate the process, tens of thousands of Californians are still stuck with felonies, misdemeanors and other convictions on their records, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.

In a groundbreaking decision, Cal State added caste as a protected category in its systemwide anti-discrimination policy. The new policy is deeply meaningful to Dalit students of South Asian decent. It came after years of activism by the students and their allies to bring an end to caste discrimination they encountered on campuses across California.

At USC, it was decided that frat parties could return in March — with caveats. Most of the school’s fraternities will be open for parties if members abide by strict rules, which include posting security guards at stairs or hallways leading to bedrooms. The new polices were enacted three months after allegations of sexual abuse and drugging at several houses.

The Summit of the Americas will be held in L.A. It’s a key gathering that U.S. officials hope will help mend diplomatic fences in the Western Hemisphere. It’s only the second time in the nearly 30-year history of the event that the meeting has been held on U.S. soil. It’ll take place in early June.

Felony charges in a fatal crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot represent a milestone. Two years after a tragic crash in which a Tesla Model S on Autopilot hit a Honda Civic, killing two occupants, L.A. County prosecutors filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of the Tesla. Experts believe it is the first felony prosecution in the United States of a driver who caused a fatality while using a partially automated driver-assist system.


Mother bears and cubs are battling for survival as wildfire, drought and traffic take a heavy toll. Nearly a century after the California grizzly was hunted to extinction, black bears are being killed by motorists in record numbers. The surge in deadly vehicle strikes is likely the result of bears fleeing massive wildfires in the Sierra Nevada, as well as the effects of drought, according to biologists. With traditional foraging grounds either desiccated or charred by flames, bears are moving to lower elevations in search of food and coming into dangerous contact with humanity.

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ICYMI, here are this week’s great reads

In her first two years as UCLA’s gymnastics choreographer, Bijoya “BJ” Das has set the internet aflame with three viral floor routines. Watch them and read about how Das, in her third year as UCLA’s floor choreographer, is trying to up the ante on the team’s trademark event by emphasizing each gymnast’s individuality. “Somehow, I think the routines are the best they’ve ever been,” coach Chris Waller said.

COVID upended this family. He became a wrestler because his father was a wrestler. He planned to work at the same power plant as his dad when he graduated from high school. The two shared the same name: Anthony Michael Reyes. Then Anthony Sr. died of COVID-19. Anthony Jr. took his own life Dec. 27. He had endured a pandemic, the loss of this father, the pain of isolation and the heartaches that come with being a teenager.

A bitter feud centers on the source of Arrowhead bottled water. High in the San Bernardino Mountains, water seeps from the ground and trickles down the mountainside. Nearby, water gushes through a system of tunnels and boreholes and flows into a network of stainless steel pipes that join together in a single line. The water then courses downhill across the San Bernardino National Forest to a tank, where some is hauled away to be bottled and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water. Environmentalists say this removes precious water that should nourish the ecosystem. After nearly seven years of fighting, activists say they hope California regulators will finally order BlueTriton Brands to drastically reduce its operation in the national forest.


One more thing: Yesterday, an alert for an article by Times opinion columnist Jackie Calmes was delivered to a number of Essential California readers in error. We apologize. (But if you liked it, you could always sign up here!)

Today’s week-in-review newsletter was curated by Laura Blasey. Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints and ideas to

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