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Perspective: Grab your mask and notepad, we’re heading back to the California State Capitol

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Masks are back for everyone who works in the building, and unvaccinated employees should be tested in the basement twice a week.

This article was published on Monday July 19, 2021 in Kaiser Santé news.

Through Rachel bluth

SACRAMENTO, Calif .– The best part about returning to the State Capitol in the besieged state of a pandemic is that elected officials are so unaccustomed to seeing us journalists after more than a year that some are sometimes very talkative. The downside is that masks make it harder to listen to others.

Much like the rest of the state – which sails through ever-changing COVID rules, such as whether vaccinated people have to wear masks or how far away school children need to be (3 vs. 6 feet) – the building is subject to entanglement changing requirements. All of us – legislators, their staff, the press and tourists – make mistakes.

When I reappeared on Capitol Hill to cover the recent budget negotiations, I immediately committed a cardinal sin of pandemic life: I shook hands with a member of the Assembly. It’s one of those mistakes that you immediately realize you’ve made, like calling your teacher “Mom.”

Luckily, she swept it off but returned after our conversation to offer me without a word a squirt from a giant bottle of hand sanitizer. Probably the best practice for anyone speaking to the press.

Resurfacing after our pandemic isolation can become confusing. Most California workplaces no longer require that vaccinated workers be masked, per the June 17 guidelines from the state’s Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board. The Capitol, where 85% of members and staff are fully immunized – compared to about 61% of eligible Californians – also dropped its mandate to mask vaccinated employees.

That is, until an epidemic broke out in early July, when nine Assembly staff – eight from the same office – tested positive. Four of them say they are fully vaccinated.

That’s a lot of bad luck, given that so-called breakthrough cases are said to be rare. According to the California Department of Public Health, there were 10,430 cases of COVID in 20.4 million fully vaccinated people as of July 7, a rate of 0.051% of people vaccinated get sick.

Some post-vaccine infections are to be expected, said Dr Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who chairs the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco. And once a positive test shows up, you will definitely find more. In this situation, tests likely revealed asymptomatic cases that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, she said.

In a letter to staff on July 9, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Leader Toni Atkins pleaded with everyone to get their shots. But, so far, inoculation is not required, even though there should “absolutely be a vaccination mandate” for the Capitol, Bibbins-Domingo said.

Meanwhile, the masks are back for anyone who works in the building, and unvaccinated employees should be tested in the basement twice a week.

Visitors are faced with all the security measures you would expect for anyone entering a government building (metal detectors and bag checks at TSA). They are advised to wear masks with at least two layers of protection and must submit to a temperature control by security guards who, through thin slits in the plexiglass barriers, point thermometer guns at the foreheads of the visitors.

As I entered the building one recent morning, a group of tourists were hanging out outside, staring at their phones trying to figure out what to do – like people hoping to step into an exclusive new club. They had all forgotten their masks and weren’t sure if they could get in, but security guards were more than happy to hand out garden-type surgical masks.

Even “Bacteria Bear,” the 800-pound bronze heirloom of the Schwarzenegger administration, is masked. However, this is not entirely normal for the bronze statue, which guards the entrance to the governor’s offices. He’s surrounded by strict do-not-touch warnings. (Looking back, perhaps the authorities should never have invited hundreds of German tourists to rub their hands on him.)

A semblance of normality returns to the building. Small groups of tourists roam the halls to view the exhibits, state police guard exits and give directions to lost reporters (me), and a handful of staff move between committee rooms and offices.

While it’s much quieter than usual and most lawmakers don’t allow voter walk-in visits, the actual job of legislating doesn’t look much different.

Lawmakers left town for a month on Thursday for summer recess, and over the past few days they’ve been rushing to pass a few dozen budget bills and wrap up committee hearings. While they were deliberating, close conversations, pats on the back and nooks and crannies were commonplace. But this time they were masked.

The California State Capitol was not built for a pandemic. Members’ desks are laid out with little separation between them, and although the ceilings are high (and richly decorated), air circulation is minimal.

“This building is not well ventilated,” said Assembly Member Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. “It’s like a plane here; you can’t even open the windows. “

The novelty of working around people again produces strange experiences. I have a habit of harassing lawmakers and their staff for interviews, but at the back of the mint-green Assembly Hall, where journalists have always been quarantined regardless of the pandemic, one member stood up. approach me to present oneself. It had been so long since she had seen a reporter here, she said, she just had to come say hello.

The state Senate chamber, which favors red and pink, feels a little more cautious about COVID than the lower house down the hall. Although state officials have repeatedly stated that no “vaccine passport” would be required in California, they are alive and well for reporters attempting to approach senators.

In addition to our credentials, journalists need passes, printed on purple paper with the seal of the Senate, to access the chamber floor. The Capitol nurse only distributes passes after reporters provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test.

In the smaller, more intimate Senate chamber, there is plexiglass around the dais in the front, a few MPs’ desks, and a microphone in the back.

And at the back of the bedroom, a single “press-only” desk is surrounded by clear plastic on three sides. I’m starting to suspect that they think we may be more vocal than the general public.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Health Line, an editorially independent service of the California Health Foundation.

Rachel Bluth: rbluth@kff.org, @RachelHBluth

Kaiser Santé news is a national health policy information service that is part of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan organization.

Photo Credit: April 14, 2018 Sacramento / CA / USA – The United States and California State Flag wave in the wind in front of the Dome of the California State Capitol. By Various Photographs / Shutterstock

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