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Amid omicron surge, Newsom administration again taps border wall company for COVID-19 staffing

Rich Pedroncelli
AP Photo
California Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils his proposed $286 billion 2022-2023 state budget during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Jan. 10, 2022.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have spiked in California during the omicron surge. And so has the number of medical staff provided by a company that specializes in border wall construction.

Texas-based SLSCO built stretches of border wall in California under former President Donald Trump, scoring contracts worth upwards of $100 million. Last year, a CapRadio investigation found the California Department of Public Health hired SLSCO to provide thousands of medical personnel in response to COVID-19. The company had pivoted to health care services during the pandemic.

So far, the state has paid SLSCO $265 million for its services. CDPH had awarded the company a no-bid contract worth up to $1 billion, but later scaled it back to $350 million, after CapRadio sent the department a series of detailed questions about the contract.

Late last year, the number of SLSCO medical staff in California dropped to about 350. But in recent weeks, as omicron ripped through California producing record case and hospitalization rates, CDPH deployed more than 1,800 staff from SLSCO around the state. The news has redoubled frustration from immigration rights advocates who voiced criticism of the contract last year.

“There are probably many other companies that could do the job that don’t have a questionable background,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program.

CDPH declined an interview request. The department refused to provide details on SLSCO personnel’s location or work assignments. In an email, an unnamed spokesperson only said the staff are “deployed across the state supporting hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and vaccination efforts.”

A CapRadio investigation last year found the state dispatched over 6,000 medical personnel from SLSCO to county health departments, mass vaccination sites and clinics in California. That included five locations near the southern border, where staff tested, vaccinated and screened nearly 60,000 migrants — not far from the wall SLSCO built to keep migrants out.

Some community health organizations that serve farmworkers and undocumented immigrants did not know CDPH sent them SLSCO workers, including the Sacramento Native American Health Center.

“We put our patients and underserved folks at the center of everything we do,” said Britta Guerrero, CEO of the health center, in an interview last year. “We would have never considered a partnership like that.”

CDPH said it was not aware of the SLSCO’s history building border walls in California.

Rios, with the American Friends Service Committee, said that’s “not good enough.”

“The state of California needs to review the principles of a company” when awarding high-value contracts, he argued.

The Newsom administration, however, was likely familiar with SLSCO’s border wall work in general. California sued the Trump administration in 2019 over his border wall construction, including sections built by SLSCO. And Newsom personally called out the company’s work on Twitter, when a section of SLSCO’s border wall fell.

Democratic lawmakers who opposed Trump’s border construction have been largely silent on the issue. In 2017, nearly two-dozen state lawmakers voted in favor of banning state contracts with border wall companies. The bill passed out of the state Senate but did not become law.

Most lawmakers contacted by CapRadio in the fall declined to comment or did not respond.

Only Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) agreed to an interview. He said he did not fault the Newsom administration for awarding the contract, and instead blamed lawmakers for not passing the legislation.

But, he added at the time, “it makes sense to transition away” from the contract.

Wiener declined to comment on CDPH increasing its reliance on SLSCO in recent weeks.

Following CapRadio’s reporting, former Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez sent a letter to Newsom, seeking additional information about the contract with SLSCO and the state’s process of awarding it.

CDPH director Tomás J. Aragón responded in December, explaining the state’s process for awarding no-bid contracts and how the department is managing the SLSCO contract.

Scott Rodd previously covered government and legal affairs for the Sacramento Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Scott worked as a freelance reporter in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., contributing to the Washington Post, New York Times, Stateline, the New York Observer and Next City. Scott grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and studied English literature at Susquehanna University.
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