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California Estimates 27 Percent Of Unemployment Payments May Have Been Fraudulent

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A staffer works to process claims at California's unemployment office, March 30, 2020. (California Employment Development Department)

California’s unemployment department says that as much as 27 percent of benefits paid out during the pandemic may have been fraudulent.

The new estimate comes on the heels of anti-fraud efforts that have left many Californians blocked from collecting payments.

Since March, California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) has paid out more than $114 billion in unemployment benefits. But in a press call on Monday, Labor Secretary Julie Su said a large chunk of that money has gone to criminals.

“Approximately 10% has been confirmed as fraudulent,” Su said. “An additional 17% of the paid claims have been identified as potentially fraudulent.”

Officials said crime rings in Moscow and Nigeria have flooded the state with applications. They said scammers operate by purchasing personal information on the dark web, using it to file bogus claims and then picking up debit cards loaded with cash at the mailboxes of vacant homes.

Stopping fraud was the stated goal when California suspended 1.4 million claims over the holidays. But many people in that group say they’re seeking benefits legitimately, and losing those payments has left them in a deep financial hole.

You Know Winter Has Arrived When It's Hailing In Palm Springs

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The National Weather Service received many reports Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 of hail falling from San Luis Obispo to Ventura counties, along with over 3 inches of snow in Frazier Park. (National Weather Service via Twitter)

Wild winter weather blew through Southern California this afternoon, bringing high winds to the coast and Los Angeles and hail to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains — even, evidently, in Palm Springs.

A visual journalist for the Desert Sun captured video of either hail or graupel falling in the desert.

The National Weather Service meanwhile said it has received reports of hail in Ventura County and over 3 inches of snow in Frazier Park.

Interstate 5 was closed in both directions through the Grapevine at one point because of the snow, and the California Highway Patrol has been escorting motorists through. Be sure to check for the latest updates from @CaltransDist6, @CaltransDist7, and @CHPFortTejon.

Rachel Brown with ABC7 captured footage of the snowfall overnight:

So, yes, winter is here.

With the forecast calling for more rain Wednesday, authorities are keeping an eye out for possible mudslides, according to John Dumas, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service:

"Any rain we're going to get is going to be good rain from a drought point of view. What we do hope for is that it doesn't fall too quickly, because the problem with the debris flows — or as a lot of people call them, mudslides — isn't so much how much rain comes down; it's how quickly it can come down. And we do have a couple of very large burn scars in the area, so we're keeping an eye on that"

A wind advisory is also in effect until 6 a.m. Tuesday for the Antelope Valley, including Lancaster and Palmdale.

And a winter storm warning is in effect until 4 a.m. for the Ventura County and L.A. County mountains (excluding the Santa Monica Mountains) with another 2-5 inches of snow above 4,000 feet expected, along with wind gusts up to 65 mph.

We'll just leave these driving tips here:

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Beutner Says LAUSD Schools Are Ready To Distribute Vaccines -- As Soon As They’re Available

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Austin Beutner (left), superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, takes directions from a school nurse after taking a test for COVID-19 at a press event at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner is pushing for L.A. county officials to approve public school campuses as distribution sites for COVID-19 vaccines.

In his weekly video address Monday, Beutner said local schools are a more viable and convenient alternative than mass vaccination sites.

“There are an average of two Los Angeles Unified schools every square mile -- within an easy walk, bike ride or drive for millions of people from San Fernando to San Pedro,” he said. “Unlike a stadium parking lot, school campuses are built to care for large numbers of people. We have restrooms and space for them to spread out so vaccine recipients can be monitored for adverse reactions.”

Later, in an interview on KPCC’s Airtalk with Larry Mantle, Beutner said the district already has the infrastructure in place to quickly establish schools as vaccination centers.

“We’re ready to go tomorrow. We’re already licensed by the state. We already have vaccination centers in our schools,” Beutner said. “We’re an institution the public trusts.”

The short-term problem, Beutner acknowledged, is a major shortage of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in L.A. County. Once supply chain issues are resolved, he’s hopeful schools can help address other barriers, such as access, especially in lower-income communities.

“Asking someone — an elderly person — to take two buses, travel across town, wait in line three or four hours for a vaccine? That’s not the best way we can serve people,” Beutner said. “Schools were built right in the middle of the neighborhood.”

LAUSD would need the county’s buy-in to move forward with this plan. After the L.A. County Department of Public Health receives COVID-19 vaccine doses from the state, it has the authority to decide how they’re distributed.

In an interview later in the day with KPCC, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said wants to include LAUSD in establishing vaccine distribution centers.

"We're anxious to take them up and host of other folks who are volunteering to help," she said. "We just need more vaccine supply."

Beutner said on AirTalk that LAUSD has already proven itself capable, after distributing millions of free meals during the pandemic, and providing COVID-19 testing for teachers and students. They would just need to train existing school clinicians to administer the vaccines, he said.

Beutner said district administrators have talked through this proposal with Department of Public Health officials for months, but they have yet to reach an agreement.

“I'm more than a little bit frustrated that those discussions haven't led to a clear path," Beutner said. “It’s going to take a while.”

Listen to Austin Beutner's AirTalk interview here:

UPDATE, Jan. 25, 5 P.M: This story was updated to include remarks from L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.


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LA County Will Follow State In Lifting Stay-At-Home Order, Outdoor Dining Can Reopen

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California’s regional stay-at-home orders have been lifted, with most counties returning to the strictest tier in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 reopening plan, according to the Department of Public Health. However, individual counties can still keep in place, or impose, stricter regulations.

Today, L.A. County Public Health officials said the county will align with the state, starting later this week. That means outdoor dining can re-open, as well as limited capacity for spa services such as nail salons.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis said the decision will "provide some small businesses with relief."

Solis warned, however, that the change doesn't mean things are going back to normal:

"Please don't take this news to mean that you can return to life normalcy. Masks, physical distancing and limiting activities are still key to getting out of this pandemic, until we can get everybody vaccinated. We are not in the clear, we're still in the purple tier, which is the most restrictive."

The full information for the purple tier is available here.Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties said they would also move into the purple tier, following the state's lead.

Here's a cheat sheet to the new guidelines:

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer echoed Solis, saying even though the county's COVID-19 numbers are showing some signs of improvement, that doesn't mean residents and businesses can let their guard down.

"If we're not careful, our metrics that are headed in the right direction will quickly change," she said.

The county's average positivity rate dropped from 20% at the beginning of the year to just under 13% this week, said Ferrer, and hospitalizations have also declined, dipping to 6,300 (they were at 8,000 at New Year's.)

Despite the good news, L.A.'s COVID numbers are still much higher than they ever were before this latest surge. Half of all hospital beds in L.A. are currently filled with COVID-19 patients. COVID patients also make up three quarters of those currently being treated in intensive care units.

Meanwhile, people who need elective surgeries, like knee or hip replacements, will have to wait because most hospitals in the county don’t have enough staff to treat them.

Ferrer also warned that the number of daily deaths from the virus will likely remain very high for the next few weeks.

BACKGROUND

The lifted stay-at-home order means businesses such as gyms and restaurants can reopen outdoor service, and hair and nail salons can reopen with modifications.

Prior to today's press conference, county supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger said they support reopening outdoor dining, personal services and other industries.

Speaking on Monday morning after the state announcement but before the county's update, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he didn't expect activities such as outdoor dining to resume.

"[Our case count] is still very high historically, [we] still [have] six to seven times more hospitalizations than what we had just a month and a half ago," he said, admitting that things are getting better, albeit slowly. "So if that [downward trend] continues to accelerate, whether it's fewer tests being required, fewer cases, a lower positivity rate, fewer hospitalizations — we could see that accelerate, but I don't expect it to happen today."

L.A. County suspended outdoor dining in late November, and while that restriction was set to expire in mid-December, it was also banned under the state stay-at-home order.

CRITICISM

State health officials today said the decision to lift restrictions came after four-week projections show ICU capacity climbing back up to 15%.

But Dr. Kimberly Shriner from Huntington Hospital in Pasadena told KPCC's AirTalk that she is concerned about the calculation, which is now more complex, given the new variant that has been found in Southern California.

"We are concerned about some of the variant issues that might be circulating now -- viruses that have mutated a little bit and changed their ability to infect other people," she said. "So the risk is perhaps higher when you open things up [now] than it was, let's say, back during the summer or certainly back in March and April."

Researchers are still trying to determine if the new variant is more infectious than the dominant strain.

Professor Anne Rimoin, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA, advised caution during her appearance on KPCC's Take Two.

“When we see more contagious variants circulating, any breach in protocol carries more risk," she said. "Everyone needs to take this into consideration and remember that just because you can do something, doesn’t you should do something.”

Rimoin said if you're going to engage in newly reopened activities, be vigilant about what kind of mask you're wearing.

“I really encourage people to think about PPE that they have and a wear it well. Data shows that regular cloth mask has about 50% efficacy at preventing spread of this virus," she said. "If you put two masks on, it can take it up to 75 percent."

California Switching To Age-Based Vaccine Eligibility, Lifts Stay-At-Home Orders

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A friendly reminder on the marquee of the Lumiere Music Hall in Beverly Hills. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

California’s regional stay-at-home orders have been lifted, with most counties returning to the strictest tier in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 reopening plan, according to the state's Department of Public Health. However, individual counties can still keep in place, or impose, stricter regulations. It remains unclear how this change will affect Los Angeles County.

Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the change at his weekly COVID-19 press conference, while Los Angeles County’s own health department will be giving a public update with more details later this afternoon. You can watch the full press conference from Gov. Newsom above and read highlights below.

VACCINE PROVIDERS HAVE TO USE IT OR LOSE IT

Many vaccine providers have been holding on to second doses after administering the first dose. However, Newsom said that providers have been directed to use their full supply — or the state will reallocate it to providers who will.

The state is also working to get providers to enter the data about vaccinations into the state system more quickly, reducing the lag in data.

The state plans to announce a plan for its new vaccination network on Tuesday, shifting from a bottom-up strategy (similar to what the state uses with the flu vaccine) to more of a coordinated, top-down strategy. The California Vaccine Team is working to move to a unified, statewide network.

To meet President Joe Biden's goal of 100 million vaccines in 100 days, California would need to vaccinate 110,000 Californians per day. The state is already vaccinating 120,000 per weekday, and that it should strive for more — though the supply issue remains, as well as attitudes by some toward vaccinations.

VACCINE ELIGIBILITY CHANGING TO SPEED UP VACCINATIONS

The state is continuing to vaccinate those 65 and older and health care workers, then will be prioritizing first responders, food and agriculture workers, and teachers and school staff.

However, it will transition from there to age-based eligibility. Newsom said this would allow the state to scale up and down quickly, getting the vaccine to disproportionately impacted communities.

Newsom compared the system to when airlines allow different groups to board a plane, without waiting for everyone in a certain group to come before opening up to the next group.

The state has also launched a new scheduling system for Californians looking to get vaccinated at MyTurn.CA.gov. You can sign up to get notified by text or email when it's your turn to be vaccinated, and to schedule an appointment when it is your turn.

It's currently a pilot program, available in L.A. and San Diego counties. The plan is to launch the My Turn website statewide in early February.

California's daily COVID-19 vaccinations have tripled, according to Gov. Newsom, with that pace sustained. It's up from 43,459 vaccinations on Jan. 4 to 131,620 on Jan. 15.

The state's "10-day challenge" is to give 1 million more vaccine doses in 10 days, according to Newsom. The state is working to simplify the vaccine eligibility framework, standard vaccine information and data, and to address supply issues. That includes both distribution what the state has, as well as pushing the federal government to get more.

LIFTING REGIONAL STAY-AT-HOME ORDERS

The statewide order was lifted as four-week projections of available ICU capacity exceeded 15% in each region, a key requirement for loosening restrictions.

Projections show that Southern California will have 33.3% available ICU capacity as of Feb. 21, four weeks from now. The state is also making the inputs used to make these projections available on the state Public Health Department website.

The health department stressed the need to continue wearing masks, physically distance at least six feet, avoid gatherings and mixing with other households, wash your hands frequently, and to get vaccinated when you’re eligible. They described the pandemic as being “far from over.”

There were 27,007 new COVID-19 cases reported Sunday, with the seven-day average at 23,283 new positives per day.

The two-week positivity rate is back into single digits at 9.4%. That's down from 13.6% two weeks ago. The positivity rate over the past week is just 8%. California ranks 26th in the nation over the past week for positivity rate; that compares with up to 29.7% in Idaho.

COVID-19-positive hospitalizations are down 19.8% over the past two weeks, from 21,747 to 17,432. COVID-positive ICU admissions are down 9.5% over that time period, from 4,854 to 4,395.

RENT EVICTION PROTECTIONS EXTENDED TO JUNE 30

The state is extending eviction protections through June 30 for those who pay at least 25% of their rent through June. The debt remains owed, but those tenants can't be evicted for it.

There is $2.6 billion in federal funds attached to this deal, including money going directly to counties and cities. That funding is targeting low-income renters.

COUNTY REOPENING TIERS

Further updates on which tier each county is in happen every Tuesday, based on local case rates and test positivity. Right now, 54 of the state's 58 counties are in the purple tier, including all of Southern California. There are three counties in the red and one county in the orange tier, with no counties in the least restrictive yellow tier.

In a statement, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said:

“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for."

Counties in the purple tier that don’t have further restrictions will be able to resume some services and activities immediately, including outdoor dining and personal services such as indoor nail and hair salons. Certain youth sports competitions may also resume in those counties.

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California Is (Slowly) Rolling Out A One-Stop Shop For COVID-19 Vaccination Sign-Ups

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National Guard members and medical personnel administer COVID vaccines to health care workers at a drive-through distribution site at Cal Expo in Sacramento on Jan. 21, 2021. (Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters)

State officials largely have left the on-the-ground logistics of vaccine distribution to local health departments that have partnered with local health providers.

As a result, Californians have had to navigate numerous online registration or notification systems managed by county and city governments, hospitals, and even supermarkets. They have spent hours on screens and on the phone, fruitlessly searching for appointments. Some online platforms have buckled under the strain, going dark for hours at a time.

"It's been frustrating," said Diane Mendoza, a school transportation manager from Visalia. Earlier this week, she spent hours online and on the phone to get a vaccine appointment for her 82-year-old mother.

That could finally be changing, as the state introduces a website called MyTurn (myturn.ca.gov), where residents should be able to learn when they are eligible to receive the vaccine and schedule appointments.

But the online registry has not yet been widely promoted and still is a work in progress.

READ THE FULL STORY:

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After Lying To FBI, Ex-City Councilmember Mitch Englander Gets 14 Months In Prison

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Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander, who represented the north San Fernando Valley, including Northridge, West Hills and Porter Ranch. (Mae Ryan/KPCC file photo)

Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander was sentenced today to 14 months in federal prison for his role in an ongoing FBI corruption probe digging into misdeeds at City Hall. Judge John F. Walter also handed down three years supervised release and a $15,000 fine.

Englander faced more than half a dozen federal charges when he agreed last year to plead guilty to one count of scheming to obstruct an FBI investigation.

He admitted to lying to federal agents to cover up cash payments that he accepted in casino bathrooms, plus a lavish Vegas trip -- including $24,000 in bottle service and escorts -- all funded by a businessman allegedly trying to leverage friendships with city officials to access downtown developers and boost sales for his cabinet business.

Speaking to the judge via Zoom, Englander said, “I hurt the very people I love the most … I apologize to the community, my former constituents, and most of all I apologize to my family, my wife and my daughters.”

This case came to light as part of a larger investigation into former City Councilman José Huizar. He faces dozens of corruption charges and is set for trial in June.

READ THE FULL STORY:

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What A Young Girl’s Death In A Crosswalk Tells Us About LA’s Traffic Violence

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(Dan Carino for LAist)

Since last March, I’ve been walking a lot more. After working from the couch or dining room table, staring at screens for hours on end, it’s a relief to get out for some fresh air and sunshine.

But every time I step into a crosswalk, I think of Alessa Fajardo.

I was sitting at my desk in October 2019 — back when we still went into a building with other people to work — scrolling through Twitter when I first saw the breaking news headlines: A 4-year-old girl and her mother were walking to school in Koreatown when they were hit by a driver. The girl, Alessa, didn’t survive.

At a memorial service for Alessa Fajardo a year after her death, family and friends donned shirts with the 4-year-old's picture. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

There wasn’t much detail about the collision itself. TV news cited police saying a woman was making a left turn and hit the mother and child in a crosswalk right in front of the school. Police officials called the tragedy “an unfortunate accident,” a phrase reiterated by TV reporters.

But these “accidents” — or what many safety advocates now refer to as traffic violence — happen regularly on the streets of Los Angeles. Alessa was one of more than 130 people killed by drivers while walking in the city in 2019. Hundreds more are injured by people driving cars each year.

As news of Alessa’s death spread, I scrolled through tweets expressing condolences for the young girl and her family — and outrage directed toward city leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti. There was a core question at the heart of the local outcry: Why isn’t the city doing more to make streets safer for people not traveling in cars?

That outcry led to protests outside L.A. City Hall, where activists demanded the city follow through on the promise of its plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025. That plan, Vision Zero, was adopted from an international safety campaign that began in Europe in the late 1990s. The guiding philosophy of the program is that traffic deaths aren’t an accidental, unavoidable byproduct of transportation, but rather a result of prioritizing cars and their speedy movement above all other infrastructure decisions.

Mayor Garcetti launched L.A.’s Vision Zero strategy in 2015, but since then, traffic deaths have surged. City data showed 134 people lost their lives in traffic collisions while walking in 2019 — up from 87 in 2014 (the year before Vision Zero launched). Total traffic deaths have risen more than 30% over those five years.

And if you think the effects of the pandemic made streets safer in 2020, think again (more on that below).

Alessa’s death stuck with me. The outrage of local parents and safety advocates who were waiting for L.A.’s leaders to put an end to the carnage stuck with me. And the dichotomy between the city’s officially adopted stance on traffic collisions and how police officers were characterizing what had happened stuck with me, too.

I hoped that learning who Alessa was and what happened to her would help me better understand the state of traffic violence in L.A. and what is and isn’t being done to curb reckless driving and save lives.

So I met with her family. I visited the intersection where she was killed. I spoke with LAPD and LADOT officials about the collision. I pored over the litany of safety improvements previously planned for the streets where she died — but not yet put in place.

You can read my full story, as well as some key takeaways from my reporting, here:

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Virtual Preschool Blues? Untameable Tantrums? LAUSD Has A Helpline For Parents And Teachers

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Young children often have difficulty expressing their feelings verbally. LAUSD has a new hotline to help parents figure out their kids' moods. (Charles Deluvio via Unsplash)

Last April, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a mental health hotline for students.

One district staff member described it as "psychological first aid."

But what about supporting kids who don’t yet have the words to share what they’re feeling, let alone talk about it on the phone?

There’s now a helpline. Every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. parents, caregivers and teachers of young children can call 213-443-0165 and get help navigating virtual learning, tantrums, anxiety and whatever else is on their mind that day. (Parents, caregivers and teachers of older students can call 213-241-3840 for help during those same hours.)

There’s no need to wait for a crisis to call.

“We're there to listen without judgment,” said district psychiatric social worker Marcela Bustamante. She’s a trained mental health professional with tips on everything from the developmental milestones kids should hit before they ever enter a classroom to how to help family’s process grief together.

“Behavior is a form of communication, especially for children between 0 to 5, because they don't have the words to say it,” Bustamante said.

A kid that’s antsy in virtual preschool might need to try learning from a different part of the home, fidgeting with an object while they tune in or just a break away from the screen.

“Maybe they're not just trying to ruin our day by having this tantrum,” Bustamante said. “They're just letting us know like, ‘Mom, I need your time... I need more hugs throughout the day. I need more praise throughout the day.’”

The social workers can also assist families who need help with special education services and connections to community resources.

“If we can really intervene early, and provide the parents and caregivers with the tools and skills, then they will be much more successful,” said LAUSD School Mental Health Director Joel Cisneros.

If you’re a parent or caregiver of a child 5 and under, we want to hear about your experiences. How has your child’s behavior changed during the pandemic? What have you learned and what are your parenting hacks?

Fill out the form below and KPCC/LAist early childhood reporter Mariana Dale and engagement producer Stefanie Ritoper will read every response. We will not share anything publicly without your permission.

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Morning Brief: This Week’s Rain Relieves LA’s Dangerous Drought

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Rain falls in L.A. on Monday, Dec. 28. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Good morning, L.A.

You probably noticed that it rained over the weekend.

It was hard to miss; for most of Saturday, the city got a good dousing. The rain is expected to lift today and tomorrow, then come back at its heaviest on Tuesday night or Wednesday.

I happen to love rainy days, so if you’re like me, the weather needs no justification. But if even the slightest droplet is an affront to your Southern California sensibilities, take comfort in this: In early December, the National Weather Service warned that SoCal’s dryness was comparable to the conditions that caused the 2017 Thomas Fire, which burned nearly 300,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,300 structures in and around Ventura County.

That comparison comes at a time when experts are openly acknowledging that wildfire season in California is turning into a year-round event.

In early January, things weren’t looking much better. When the heat wave hit earlier this month, my colleague Jacob Margolis reported that our region had seen only about 30% of our average rainfall — and that dry, powerful Santa Ana winds would only make things more dangerous.

So this week’s showers are something to celebrate, even if you don’t necessarily love having to put on a raincoat or drive extra carefully while conditions are at their worst.

And if you can’t soldier through by resigning yourself to some cozy Netflix viewing, consider the suggestion of NWS meteorologist Adam Roser. Tomorrow’s break between storms, he said, will likely be “a beautiful day to go see the snow in the mountains.”

Take advantage if you can.

Keep reading for more on what’s happening in L.A. today, and stay safe out there.


What Else You Need To Know Today

  • The FBI is investigating vandalism and an explosion at El Monte’s First Works Baptist Church, which is known for its anti-LGBTQ stance.
  • A new vaccine distribution supersite is open at Soka University in Orange County.
  • Local researchers are working to turn the COVID-19 vaccine into an easy-to-deliver skin patch.
  • The new Netflix documentary series, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, goes in-depth on the search for, and ultimate capture of, Richard Ramirez.
  • Initial wait times for vaccinations at Dodger Stadium were high in part because many people showed up without an appointment.
  • At Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook, the pandemic is preying on the inequities that disproportionately hurt Latino and Black communities.
  • The historic Rose Garden Tea Room at The Huntington is getting a $7.5 million facelift.

Before You Go … Cheech Marin Brings Chicano Art To Fans

Cheech Marin, top left, during a recent Zoom event in affiliation with the Riverside Art Museum.

Cheech Marin (Cheech & Chong, Born in East L.A.) is one of the world's leading collectors of Chicano art, and he’s now one step closer to sharing his collection with other fans.

The actor, best known for his comedic performances alongside Tommy Chong, is working with the Riverside Art Museum and the City of Riverside to open The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture, which will house the works he owns, in addition to other exhibits.

To generate enthusiasm and spread the word about his project, the museum has been hosting virtual conversations with artists, musicians and performers, including Carlos Santana, Estevan Oriol, Mister Cartoon and others.


Help Us Cover Your Community

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The news cycle moves fast. Some stories don't pan out. Others get added. Consider this today's first draft, and check LAist.com for updates on these stories and more. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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