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California hired a border wall company for COVID-19 response, including vaccinating migrants

Gregory Bull
AP Photo
Border Patrol agent Justin Castrejon speaks in front of newly replaced border wall sections Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, near Tecate, Calif.

The Newsom administration hired contractor SLSCO to screen, test and vaccinate migrants crossing California’s southern border this year, not far from where the company built large sections of border wall to keep migrants out.

The state awarded a no-bid contract to SLSCO — the company former president Donald Trump tapped to build his border wall in California — for COVID-19 response and health care staffing. The contract is currently worth up to $350 million.

Since entering office, Gov. Gavin Newsom repeatedly criticized Trump’s border wall, calling it “political theater.” California even filed a lawsuit against the former president to halt construction at the border, including projects by SLSCO.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has dispatched over 6,000 medical personnel from SLSCO to county health departments, mass vaccination sites and clinics around the state. That includes five locations along the border, where SLSCO personnel delivered COVID-19 services to nearly 60,000 migrants. Staff recruited by the company were also sent to community health organizations that provided COVID-19 services to farmworkers and undocumented immigrants.

The department said it was not aware of the company’s history building border walls in California.

Throughout the pandemic, and especially during his administration’s vaccine rollout, Newsom emphasized the importance of building trust with hard-to-reach communities, including undocumented immigrants. But immigration advocates and community health care leaders said they were appalled by the state’s partnership with SLSCO.

Britta Guerrero, CEO of the Sacramento Native American Health Center, called it “disheartening.” Her organization worked on campaigns to vaccinate hard-to-reach communities, including migrant farmworkers. Unbeknownst to Guerrero, medical personnel from SLSCO were assigned to some of their vaccination efforts.

“We put our patients and underserved folks at the center of everything we do,” she said. “We would have never considered a partnership like that.”

In an email, CDPH said SLSCO was “the largest supplier of bilingual staff” for the state’s vaccination effort and “was useful in the state’s equity campaign that resulted in more Californians in underserved communities getting vaccinated.”

We put our patients and underserved folks at the center of everything we do. We would have never considered a partnership like that.
– Britta Guerrero, CEO of the Sacramento Native American Health Center

Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program, scoffed at this notion.

“It almost sounds like a joke to me, to use that rationale,” he said. “A number of [other] companies could have provided the same type of service.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to a detailed, 450-word email requesting an interview to discuss the contract and the governor’s repeated assurances to undocumented and Latino communities during the pandemic.

There’s no indication the contract violated any laws. California has so far paid SLSCO at least $172 million under the contract, more than the Trump administration awarded the company to build a controversial stretch of border wall in San Diego. The Newsom administration used its expanded pandemic emergency authority to skip the bidding process typically required by law to vet companies. Around 350 staff from SLSCO remained in California as of late September, with more potentially on the way as booster shots and student vaccine mandates roll out.

State and county public health officials in California said SLSCO has provided quality health care staffing. But the company’s COVID-19 work in other states has been dogged by controversy.

The company declined an interview request and did not address specific questions via email. In a statement, spokesperson Liz Rogers said SLSCO was “honored” to work with CDPH and that its “role is to supply staff of varying skill sets and staff types” to fulfill shortages around the state.

Newsom has previously faced controversy for his contracting practices during the pandemic. A CapRadio investigation earlier this year found over a billion dollars in no-bid COVID-19 contracts went to companies that contributed more than $700,000 to the governor and his political campaigns. Government ethics experts identified no illegal wrongdoing, but said the situation showed poor discretion and could undermine public trust.

Staffing border sites

In January, the Newsom administration awarded a no-bid, $10 million contract to SLS Health Services LLC, an SLSCO subsidiary established during the pandemic. The agreement outlined the state’s medical staffing needs in response to the winter surge in COVID-19 cases.

In an email, CDPH said the agreement was one of 12 staffing contracts the state entered into during the pandemic.

Over the next five months, the contract ballooned to up to $1 billion — just as Newsom pushed to get more Californians vaccinated, including a concerted effort to reach underserved populations disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, such as Latino and undocumented communities.

CDPH reduced the contract amount by $650 million last week. This came after CapRadio sent a detailed list of questions about the state’s partnership with the company. In an email, the department said the reduced amount is “a more accurate reflection of the contract’s spending based on the invoice history.”

One main reason the contract’s value increased substantially from its initial price tag: delivering services at the border.

According to CDPH, over 150 workers from SLSCO have staffed five border sites since March. Nearly 70 remain. There are three sites in San Diego County and one in both Riverside and Imperial counties. CDPH declined to provide specific locations for the border sites.

Since April, the staff has administered nearly 60,000 tests and over 12,000 vaccinations at the border. In total, 57,024 migrants were served, according to the CDPH.

The department could not specify where the migrants went after receiving those services.

During the pandemic, Newsom has repeatedly spoke about his administration’s support for undocumented Californians and the steps it took to mitigate the outsize impact on them. CDPH said the work by SLSCO is part of the state’s “unprecedented humanitarian efforts at the border.”

But Rios with the American Friends Service Committee said hiring a company to screen and vaccinate vulnerable migrants, after it “profited from building structures of hatred along the US-Mexico border,” is an affront to immigrant communities.

“It shows a lack of historical memory, to [not] hold accountable those companies that were profiting from that type of business,” he said.

And Newsom has a long track record of bashing Trump’s border wall, going so far as to call it "a monument to stupidity.” California also led a 16-state lawsuit against Trump over the wall, as SLSCO began work on projects along the state’s southern border.

Newsom even dragged Trump on Twitter when a portion of SLSCO’s border wall collapsed from a gust of wind.

Rios questioned whether the administration adequately vetted SLSCO while negotiating the no-bid contract, and whether anyone knew the company was involved in building the southern border wall.

“Or is it simply just swept under the rug?” he asked.

CapRadio asked if the public health department knew about the company’s recent history building border walls in California.

“CDPH would not have been aware of activities that were not related to the scope of this contract’s original mission” of providing health care staffing, the department said in an emailed response.

Community health groups frustrated

Thousands of medical personnel from SLSCO were dispatched to county health departments, mass vaccination sites and clinics around the state.

Some wound up working with community-based groups that aimed to vaccinate migrant farmworkers and undocumented Californians.

In Riverside County, for example, the state sent 69 medical workers from SLSCO over the summer to help staff mobile vaccination units. The county dispatches those units throughout the community, according to county public health spokesperson Jose Arballo Jr.

That includes staffing vaccine campaigns through TODEC Legal Center, a nonprofit with the mission of helping “recent immigrants learn English, secure citizenship, and create new connections in their chosen community.”

Executive director Luz Gallegos said she had no idea some of the staff came from SLSCO. She was under the impression the nurses were employees of the county public health department.

Newsom made a point of highlighting Riverside County’s efforts to vaccinate migrant farmworkers. He held a press conference in February at Sea View Packing, a food processing facility in Coachella.

“To the farmworkers … we’re here to celebrate them, truly essential workers,” said Newsom. He added that the state had “a unique responsibility to do more and do better to support them, and frankly we haven’t done enough.”

Jay Calderon
AP Photo
Gov. Gavin Newsom, third from right, takes a photograph with farmworkers and health care workers in Coachella, Ca., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

SLSCO staff began working with Riverside County in June. Since then, the county has continued to hold vaccine drives at food processing and distribution plants, where workers at the facilities and in the fields are immunized.

“It’s likely that SLS nurses were providing the vaccinations,” Arballo said. He added that SLS staff “are completing their work in a satisfactory manner and provided critically needed vaccines.”

The county did not address questions from CapRadio about whether using SLSCO staff raised potential ethical concerns, given the county’s focus on building connections with undocumented and farmworker communities during the pandemic.

The state also sent 10 staff from SLSCO to work on vaccine campaigns organized by the Sacramento Native American Health Center and La Familia Counseling Center. The groups helped run a series of pop-up vaccination clinics, including ones aimed at immunizing farmworkers and undocumented communities.

Sacramento Native American Health Center Chief Executive Britta Guerrero.

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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