As Assemblywoman Dr. Akilah Weber looks toward the future of the 79th District, she envisions neighborhoods with safe parks, clean air and fresh food.
The shortage of those resources within low-income and minority communities has contributed to chronic health conditions, leaving residents at high risk of illness and death in the pandemic. Weber hopes to reverse that by cultivating healthier environments in her district and the state.
“From a health care perspective, we have to close those gaps that we have, that have contributed to unequal outcomes of COVID-19,” she said.
Weber, an OB-GYN with Rady Children’s Hospital and a former La Mesa councilwoman, won a special election on April 6 for the assembly seat that her mother, Shirley Weber, held for a decade. Earning almost 52 percent of votes in a field of five candidates, Akilah Weber, a Democrat, avoided a potential runoff election in June, and took office on Monday, sworn in by her mother, now California secretary of state.
From her district office in downtown San Diego on Friday, Weber, founder and director of the Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology Division at Rady, made plans for her transition to Sacramento and described her goals for the position, centered in a comprehensive view of public health.
“How can we improve our individual communities so that everyone here in San Diego has access to clean air, open space and fresh water, which would allow you to be healthier?” she said.
In food deserts — neighborhoods without access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables — residents often turn to convenience stores or fast food for meals, she said. The resulting problems, such as elevated rates of obesity and diabetes, have been generations in the making.
“It would not be uncommon for me to have a teenage (patient) who weighed 250, 300 pounds or more, if you live in an area that doesn’t have fresh food,” she said.
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For those patients, like the communities they come from, she advocates incremental steps toward a healthier life.
During her campaign, Weber, 42, said, she enjoyed talking to agricultural companies about improving school lunches and plans to continue those conversations. Earlier this week Weber reached out to local city leaders about one-time state funding available for improvements such as community gardens.
Legislation for this assembly session is already submitted, but Weber said she is considering current bills she may support or co-sponsor and is recruiting a legislative director to begin drafting bills for next year’s session. She’s also hiring a district director and field representatives to serve constituents in San Diego.
As the Legislature begins hearings on the state budget, Weber said she hopes to focus on educational spending, aid for small businesses and nonprofits, and investment in information technology infrastructure, particularly Internet access for rural areas. As the pandemic has forced more business online, she said it has led to improvements in some kinds of service delivery.
“Some things won’t go away and shouldn’t go away, such as telemedicine,” she said. “It’s a good way of providing subspecialties without these patients having to bear the burden of traveling for care. Those are things that should be in our budget and robust”
Weber supports spending on rehabilitation services for incarcerated people, focused on training and education. And she wants to see allocations for mental health programs, as well as regulatory changes to make those services more accessible through insurance.
As California’s COVID-19 cases drop, she is looking at ways to continue vaccine administration, particularly for people who are unable or unwilling to travel for their shots. Reaching them will be key to bringing vaccination rates to a level that provides herd immunity, she said.
“Making sure we go to them rather than waiting for them to come to us is going to be critical in these next few months,” she said.
Now that the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available for use again in the U.S., Weber said she would propose providing it in emergency rooms, where it can be administered to people at the same time they receive emergency care.
She’s also calling for a post-pandemic report to examine California’s successes and missteps during the pandemic, knowing that this may not be the last deadly virus the state will face. “We say it’s not so much if we see something like this again, but when,” she said.
To prepare for that, California must maintain stockpiles of personal protective equipment, which was scarce when the pandemic struck last spring.
“When COVID-19 started, our N95 (masks) were like gold,” Weber said, referring to shortages of the respirators used in surgery and other health care procedures.
The state must clearly define essential workers such as health care staff, as well as grocery clerks, mail carriers and delivery drivers, and ensure there is enough protective gear for all of them, she said.
State officials should also work with biotech companies to make sure that they can swiftly produce a test to provide rapid, reliable results for any new virus, she said. She noted that turnaround time on some COVID-19 tests has been as long as a week, leaving long periods when the virus could spread undetected from an infected person to others.
“When this happens again, we need to make sure we have researchers who can hit the ground running on rapid tests,” she said.
As Weber staffs her offices and gets to know Sacramento, she’s also juggling the role of mom to her two boys, Kadir, 9, and Jalil, 7 1/2 : “He’s very proud of the half,” she said.
Although she will be in Sacramento when the Legislature is in session, Weber will return each weekend for baseball games and other events, and carve out time for her sons, at least virtually, each day. This past week she scheduled hour-long Zoom calls with each of them, walking them through math and spelling homework remotely.
“You have to be creative, so that’s what I’ve done and will continue to do, so they know that mommy is still there,” she said.
Weber, who is winding down most of her medical practice, but plans to retain a limited number of specialized cases at Rady, is also committed to coming home to help constituents with issues ranging from securing pandemic unemployment benefits to assisting city officials with state funding applications.
“I am honestly very grateful and very humbled to be given this opportunity,” she said. “I operate with an open-door policy, and the staff that will be hired will have that view as well.”