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Mostly Positive News for California COVID-19 Developments

California received a batch of mostly positive pandemic-related developments on Monday with data showing that the number of people dying of COVID-19 is beginning to decline and hospitalization rates continue to fall steadily.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced that San Diego County, the state’s second largest, has made enough progress against the novel coronavirus that it could be removed from the watch list as early as this week.

In one of the key pandemic metrics, the seven-day daily rolling average of fatalities fell to fewer than 130 deaths per day on Sunday for the first time since last month, according to a Times analysis of state data. The number of hospital patients with COVID-19 has declined steadily for a month, the data show.

Community spread appears to be falling, too: The share of Californians who tested positive over a two-week period dipped to 6.5% Monday, an early indication that California is “stabilizing, and moving broadly in the right direction,” Newsom said.

The promising data come two weeks after Newsom touted a falling infection rate, then backtracked after officials found errors in how the data had been reported. On Monday, for the first time since the data breakdown, the state updated its watchlist of areas with high case rates, offering a mixed picture around the state.

Although Santa Cruz was taken off the list, four small counties – Amador, Mendocino, Inyo and Calaveras – were added and must close businesses by Thursday.

The infection rate in San Diego has stayed beneath 100 cases per 100,000 residents for nearly a week. “It’s extraordinarily good news, speaking on behalf not just of the county but the state of California,” Newsom said.

Los Angeles County continues to make progress toward getting off the watchlist, with the average daily number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths falling steadily, said Barbara Ferrer, the head of the Department of Public Health.

The county meets five of the six metrics used to measure progress against the pandemic, including testing more than 150 people per 100,000 residents per day, and maintaining a healthy margin of available intensive-care beds and ventilators.

The county continues to make progress on reducing community transmission to meet the most stubborn benchmark: a 14-day average of fewer than 100 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents for three consecutive days.

Last week, the county reported 335 cases per 100,000 residents; on Sunday, the rate was 298 cases per 100,000.

Daily hospitalizations in Los Angeles County have fallen 37% over a month, from 2,219 cases per day in mid-July, to 1,388 cases in mid-August, Ferrer said. The average number of daily deaths has fallen from 43 to 30 over the same time period, she said.

The hospitalization rate data is “one of our best indicators that our efforts over the last few weeks are actually working,” Ferrer said, in part because it was not affected by the data reporting errors.

3.8 Billion Views of Misleading Health Info on Facebook

Misleading health content has racked up an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook over the past year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy group Avaaz said in a new report here on Wednesday.

The report found that content from 10 “superspreader” sites sharing health misinformation had almost four times as many Facebook views in April 2020 as equivalent content from the sites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The social media giant, which has been under pressure to curb misinformation on its platform, has made amplifying credible health information a key element of its response. It also started removing misinformation about the novel coronavirus outbreak that it said could cause imminent harm.

Facebook’s algorithm is a major threat to public health. Mark Zuckerberg promised to provide reliable information during the pandemic, but his algorithm is sabotaging those efforts by driving many of Facebook’s 2.7 billion users to health misinformation-spreading networks,” said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.

We share Avaaz’s goal of limiting misinformation, but their findings don’t reflect the steps we’ve taken to keep it from spreading on our services” said a Facebook company spokeswoman.

“Thanks to our global network of fact-checkers, from April to June, we applied warning labels to 98 million pieces of COVID-19 misinformation and removed 7 million pieces of content that could lead to imminent harm. We’ve directed over 2 billion people to resources from health authorities and when someone tries to share a link about COVID-19, we show them a pop-up to connect them with credible health information,” she said.

Avaaz’s report also said that warning labels from fact-checkers were applied inconsistently even when misinformation had been found to be false.

The report tracked how content from a sample of misinformation-sharing websites was shared on Facebook by interpreting available Facebook data between May 2019 and May 2020.

Trump Signs Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act of 2020

Last Friday, President Donald Trump signed an expansion of the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program to include disability or death from COVID-19 among the criteria for payments.

The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program (PSOB) provides a death benefit to the eligible survivors of Federal, state or local public safety officers whose death was the direct and proximate result of a personal (traumatic) injury sustained in the line of duty (certain fatal, line of duty heart attacks and strokes are also covered).

The act also provides a disability benefit to eligible public safety officers who have been permanently and totally disabled as the direct result of a catastrophic personal injury sustained in the line of duty. The injury must permanently prevent the officer from performing any gainful work.

The amount of the PSOB benefit is $359,316.00 for eligible deaths and disabilities occurring on or after October 1, 2018. The amount of the PSOB educational assistance benefit for one month of full-time attendance on or after October 1, 2018 is $1,224.00.

The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act of 2020 is similar to the HEROES Act, which secured benefits for the families of those who gave their lives during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The new Act extends the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program by creating a presumption that if a first responder is diagnosed with the coronavirus within 45 days of their last day on the job, the Department of Justice will treat it as a line of duty incident and provide the payments.

The Act provides that “..unless competent medical evidence establishes that the death of a public safety officer (as defined in section 1204 of title I of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (34 U.S.C. 10284)) was directly and proximately caused by something other than COVID-19, COVID-19 (or complications therefrom) suffered by the public safety officer shall be presumed to constitute a personal injury within the meaning of section 1201(a) of title I of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (34 U.S.C. 10281(a)), sustained in the line of duty by the officer..

Before, the illness had to be officially linked to a job-related source. That burden of proof required painstaking contact tracing efforts.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who introduced the measure in the U.S. Senate, said the law was needed to keep the survivors of first responders who die from COVID-19 from having to prove their loved one contracted it on the job.

Teva Pharmaceuticals Kickback Case Settled for $3.5M

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has reached a $3.5 million settlement with specialty pharmacy Advanced Care Scripts, Inc, to resolve allegations that ACS conspired with pharmaceutical manufacturer Teva Neuroscience, Inc. to enable Teva to pay kickbacks to Medicare patients taking Copaxone, a Teva drug approved for treatment of multiple sclerosis.

When a Medicare beneficiary obtains a prescription drug covered by Medicare Part B or Part D, the beneficiary may be required to make a partial payment, which may take the form of a co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible. These co-pay obligations may be substantial for expensive medications.

Congress included co-pay requirements in these programs to encourage market forces to serve as a check on health care costs, including the prices that pharmaceutical manufacturers can demand for their drugs.

The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits pharmaceutical companies from offering or paying, directly or indirectly, any remuneration – which includes money or any other thing of value – to induce Medicare patients to purchase the companies’ drugs.

Advanced Care Scripts served as a contracted vendor for Teva and provided, among other things, benefits investigation services to certain patients who had been prescribed Copaxone. As part of the settlement, the company acknowledged certain facts.

Advanced Care Scripts knowingly enabled a large pharmaceutical manufacturer to pay kickbacks to Medicare patients taking its expensive drug. Prosecutors say that such conduct undermined the Medicare program’s co-pay structure, which Congress created as a safeguard against inflated drug prices.

Advanced Care Scripts (ACS) willingly served as a pawn in a kickback scheme, putting profit over patient needs, by helping Teva to time its foundation payments to boost sales of Teva’s own drug, which ACS then dispensed,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division.

Duke University Studies COVID Mask Effectiveness

Mandates for mask use in public during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, worsened by global shortage of commercial supplies, have led to widespread use of homemade masks and mask alternatives. It is assumed that wearing such masks reduces the likelihood for an infected person to spread the disease, but many of these mask designs have not been tested in practice.

It is assumed that wearing such masks reduces the likelihood for an infected person to spread the disease, but many of these mask designs have not been tested in practice.

Scientists at Duke University went about testing 14 different types of masks to determine which offers the best protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

They demonstrated a simple optical measurement method to evaluate the efficacy of masks to reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets during regular speech.

The team has found that bandannas, gaiters, and knitted masks are some of the least effective face coverings for preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The team conducted a proof-of-concept study, which was published in the journal Science Advances, wherein they revealed that the simple, low-cost technique provided visual proof that face masks are effective in reducing droplet emissions during normal wear.

N95 masks, which are often used by healthcare professionals, worked best to stop the transmission of respiratory droplets during regular speech.

Some of the best masks include three-layer surgical masks and cotton masks, which can be made at home, the researchers said.

According to the researchers, more research is needed to identify variations of results depending on the masks used, speakers, and how people wear them. However, the study provides an idea for companies on how to conduct mask testing to determine which masks are best for employees.

The team also emphasized that wearing a mask is a simple yet effective way to stem the spread of COVID-19. If everyone wore a mask, 99 percent of the respiratory droplets could be stopped before they reach another person.

This is essential since as many as 40 percent of infected people do not know they carry the virus and can transmit the virus to equally unsuspecting people. Wearing a mask by everyone can reduce the chance of asymptomatic transmission, wherein people who do not feel sick are infected with the virus. If they mingle with other people, there is a high chance they can transmit the dreaded virus.

Since as many as 40% of infected people don’t actually know they have the infection and therefore transmit the novel coronavirus to equally unsuspecting people they come in contact with, “knowing what does and does not stop transmission is critical, the researchers said. So is wearing a mask”.

Proposed Law Targets Garment Industry Wage Theft

Proposed new law, SB 1399, is so far-reaching that it’s being labeled by critics as an existential threat to what remains of the once-booming apparel industry in Los Angeles, which has shrunk to roughly 45,000 workers after decades of competition from cheap foreign labor.

More than a dozen business groups have lined up against it, including the industry’s trade association, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Retailers Assn.

But the article published on MSN says that opposition, though, is not uniform as some high-profile L.A.-area companies are backing the bill, including Reformation, which markets eco-friendly women’s wear and has a celebrity clientele, and Fashion Nova, the popular fast-fashion retailer, which has been accused of turning a blind eye to wage theft but recently announced changes to its contracting practices.

The proposed reforms follow those enacted in 1999, four years after 72 undocumented Thai workers were found virtually enslaved in an El Monte apartment complex, stitching together clothing behind barbed wire. That legislation made garment manufacturers liable for wage violations by the contractors who cut, sew and otherwise produce their garments.

But in the decades since, worker advocates say that some fashion brands and retailers that carry their own clothing lines have found ways to skirt the law by employing layers of subcontracting between them and the small factories that actually produce apparel.

Random inspections of 77 garment shops conducted in 2015 and 2016 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found wage violations at 85% of them. Advocates say the situation hasn’t gotten any better, with many undocumented Latino immigrants afraid to file wage claims over fears of deportation.

A 2016 state law, which applied to multiple fields, tightened up regulations on piece-rate compensation, which is traditional in the apparel industry and pays workers for every hem, seam and cuff they sew. That law mandated paid rest and recovery time and required more detailed payroll records.

Labor advocates say the rise of fast-fashion retailers such as Forever 21 has contributed to the problem. The L.A. company had been the poster child for alleged wage abuses before it faltered and filed for bankruptcy last year. The Los Angeles Times documented in 2017 how the company had been cited in nearly 300 claims since 2007 by workers demanding back pay for producing its clothing, yet Forever 21 had not paid anything because it was classified as a retailer.

More recently, labor advocates have been critical of Fashion Nova, one of the local industry’s rising stars – and were stunned to hear it had decided to support the proposed reforms.

Opponents contend the two companies are outliers and do not represent the practices of the L.A. apparel industry, where the use of subcontractors to assemble apparel has long been standard. They are calling for better enforcement of existing laws.

“This new law is all-encompassing, and it paints the whole industry as a bad apple – that is my problem. We are not all Fashion Nova and Forever 21,” said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn. trade group, who fears big chains such as Nordstrom and other retailers will stop contracting for apparel in the state. “You are picking the worst of the worst.”

Fashion Nova declined to comment on Metchek’s remarks but has announced reforms of its contracting practices. That includes a mandate that its contractors and subcontractors agree to random independent audits and that their workers are paid the applicable minimum wage, which in Los Angeles rises to $15 an hour for employers of all size next July.

Each New Drug Costs $2.6B and Takes 15 Years!

$2.6 billion! That’s how much Tuft’s University research says it costs to bring a new drug from the research lab to the pharmacy counter. The full research, development and approval process can last from 12 to 15 years.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) is a science-led organization in charge of overseeing the drug approval process before a drug is marketed. CDER ensures that both brand and generic drugs work correctly and that the health benefits outweigh the known risks.

In the manufacturer’s early phases of drug discovery (preclinical research) they are synthesizing and screening a drug candidate for toxicity in animals before the medicine moves on to human trials. The sponsor files an Investigational New Drug (IND) Application that details specifics such as chemistry, manufacturing and the initial plans for human testing.

A drug then undergoes several years of laboratory testing before a New Drug Application (NDA) is made to the FDA to begin testing the drug in humans. Only one in 1000 of the compounds that enter laboratory testing will ever make it to human testing.

If the FDA gives the green light, the investigational drug will then enter three phases of human clinical trials:

Phase 1: About 20 to 80 healthy volunteers to establish a drug’s safety and profile, and takes about 1 year.
Phase 2: Roughly 100 to 300 patient volunteers to assess the drug’s effectiveness in those with a specific condition or disease. This phase runs about 2 years.
Phase 3: Typically, several thousand patients are monitored in clinics and hospitals to carefully determine effectiveness and identify further side effects.This phase runs about about 3 years on average.

For an NDA, the company writes and submits an application which includes thousands of pages to the FDA for review and approval. The NDA is the official request for US approval of a drug. The FDA team has 60 days to review the NDA and determine if it will be filed for further review.

A group of independent physicians and other clinicians, called an FDA Advisory Board, meets to discuss the NDA with the FDA reviewers and manufacturer of the product. These meetings often take one or two days. After the meeting, the Advisory Board will make a recommendation for approval, or not, to the FDA, usually through a vote. The FDA often follows the advice of the Board, but is not obligated to do so.

After final approval, the drug becomes available for physicians to prescribe. However, drugs may not come to the market immediately because of patents disputes, manufacturing issues, or controlled substance designation from the DEA.

WCIRB Suggests 2.6% Rate Increase for 2021

The Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California Governing Committee voted to authorize the WCIRB to submit a January 1, 2021 Advisory Pure Premium Rate Filing to the California Insurance Commissioner.

The filing will propose advisory pure premium rates that will be on average approximately 2.6 percent above the average approved January 1, 2020 advisory pure premium rates.

In his presentation to the Governing Committee, WCIRB Executive Vice President and Chief Actuary Dave Bellusci noted that absent the estimated impact of COVID-19 claims on 2021 policies, the WCIRB’s recommendation would reflect a modest decrease (1.3 percent) in advisory pure premium rates.

In addition to projecting the cost of COVID-19 claims to be incurred on 2021 policies, the WCIRB’s recommendation also reflected the impact of the pandemic related economic slowdown on wage growth, claim frequency and claim severity.

The WCIRB expects to submit its January 1, 2021 Advisory Pure Premium Rate Filing to the California Department of Insurance (CDI) during the week of August 24, 2020.

The CDI will schedule a public hearing to consider the filing, and once the Notice of Proposed Action and Notice of Public Hearing is issued, the WCIRB will post a copy in the Filings and Plans section of the WCIRB website.

WCAB Expands Hearing Options with LifeSize Video

The Division of Workers’ Compensation and Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board continue to improve their ability to hold hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following changes are effective August 17.

DWC will continue to hear all mandatory settlement conferences, priority conferences, status conferences, case-in-chief trials, lien conferences and expedited hearings telephonically via the individually assigned judges’ conference lines as announced in newslines issued on April 3, April 28 and May 28.

Beginning August 17, DWC will have a video option available for trials and expedited hearings only. Parties will continue to use individually assigned judges’ conference lines on the day of trial. However, judges will have the option of conducting the trial through the judge’s virtual courtroom if needed. If that is required, the judge will provide a link to the parties allowing them to log into the video platform.

DWC will be using the video platform called LifeSize. Stakeholders should download the software prior to a hearing where a video option may become necessary. Neither DWC nor LifeSize will charge for participants to use the platform.

However, parties will need to have certain system requirements to fully participate in the video option. Parties will also need to have a web camera. Participants without access to a web camera may use a smart phone with the program, although it is not recommended. Additional information on LifeSize and how to use the program may be found on the DWC website.

All parties scheduled for a hearing should continue to call the conference line for the judge in front of whom the case is set, at the designated time listed on the hearing notice. When prompted, the parties should enter the access code assigned to that line. DWC staff will instruct participants as to the procedure to follow during the call.

DWC is in the process of updating its hearing notices to reflect the judges’ conference lines. That change will be implemented on or about August 15.

DWC has also begun hearing Special Adjudication Unit (SAU) lien trials. The same procedure described above will apply for SAU trials.

At this time all other lien trials will be continued. However, DWC anticipates adding lien trials back to the calendar in the near future.

District offices will not hold in-person hearings.

DWC will not accept walk-in filings, walk-through documents or in-person requests at this time. DWC will only accept electronic filing via EAMS and JET File, and paper filing by U.S. mail.

DWC will accept limited email filings pursuant to WCAB’s en banc decision dated April 6 and its newsline issued on April 23. Email filings are limited to documents that are subject to a statute of limitations that cannot otherwise be efiled, JET filed or filed by U.S. mail.

DWC will continue to accept an electronic signature on any settlement documents, applications, pleadings, petitions or motions that are sent to the district offices or filed in EAMS. For all e-forms, parties should utilize “S signature” as shown in the E-forms Filing Reference Guide and the JET File Business Rules.

Injured workers who are unable to file utilizing the available options or need assistance may contact DWC’s call center at 909-383-4522.

The WCAB office in San Francisco is operating with limited in-office staff. The WCAB commissioners and staff continue to work remotely. All practitioners are encouraged to regularly check the WCAB and DWC websites for updates about the district offices’ and the WCAB’s operations during this period.

Daly City Restaurant Resolves Wage Theft Claim for $2.6M

The Labor Commissioner’s Office has reached a $2.6 million settlement with the owners of Kome Japanese Seafood & Buffet in Daly City, securing compensation for 133 workers for unpaid minimum wage, overtime and split shift premiums that were uncovered in a 2018 wage theft investigation. The settlement will also compensate workers for WARN Act violations, which occurred when the restaurant closed without notice.

The Labor Commissioner’s Office in June 2018 issued wage assessments and penalties of $5.16 million to Kome Japanese Seafood & Buffet in Daly City including $4,381,461 for unpaid back wages and $780,400 for penalties. The wage theft violations and civil penalties included failure to pay minimum wage, overtime and split shift premiums. In 2019, the civil penalties were adjusted to $754,950 and the unpaid wages were adjusted to $3,575,433 based on evidence presented prior to hearing.

Notification has been delivered to the current and former restaurant workers of their expected settlement payments and workers began receiving checks this month. The workers are receiving settlement payments ranging from $20 to $47,253 with an average of $14,217 per worker. The settlement also includes $55,000 in civil penalties payable to the state.  

The Labor Commissioner’s Office launched its investigation into Kome Japanese Seafood & Buffet after receiving complaints from workers who reported wage theft. The Labor Commissioner’s Office worked with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and the Chinese Progressive Association, which represented many of the workers who cooperated in the investigation.

The Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, also known as the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, combats wage theft and unfair competition by investigating allegations of illegal and unfair business practices.

The Labor Commissioner’s Office launched an interdisciplinary outreach campaign, “Reaching Every Californian.” The campaign amplifies basic protections and builds pathways to impacted populations so that workers and employers understand workplace protections, obligations and how to ensure compliance with these laws.