We asked readers to share their stories, which trace the downs and ups of life as we now know it. Credit: Kelly Sullivan, Pete Rosos

Two years ago, many of us started tracking a new virus heading our way. It was in China. It was in Washington state. It was on cruise ships at sea. And then it was here. And it was clearly potentially serious. And deadly.

Along the way, we entered a pandemic. A virus traveling the world. 

Together we’ve learned – and debated –  the importance of covering our noses and mouths, of washing our hands, of avoiding cramped spaces with shared air. Of vaccines and boosters. We’ve suffered losses unimaginable, the most vulnerable the hardest hit. 

It’s been a lesson in adjustment. Adjustment is different for everyone, of course, depending on a whole bunch of things, from health to employment to finances to access to health care to emotional fortitude. 

And for many, it’s been a lesson in grieving. 

Jake Pass, a Berkeley resident featured in one of the eight stories below, was taken off life support Tuesday morning, as this article was nearing publication. 

“He passed away peacefully,” his wife, Yoko Tsumagari, texted Berkeleyside. She had spoken with our reporter over the previous few days about her husband and their life together.

The data show that omicron is abating. Restrictions are easing again, and there’s a palpable pandemic lightness in the air. 

But even here, in heavily vaccinated Berkeley, severe illness remains. Pass’s death is a testament to the very real seriousness and sorrow of COVID-19, even as fewer get sick from milder variants and vaccination rates increase. He was vaccinated and boosted but had a preexisting condition. 

In many ways, we’ve all become a little virus-smarter, on alert to what could lie ahead. But the pandemic has exposed all of us to uncertainty. To understand how people in Berkeley are coping, we asked you to share what you’ve been feeling. Here are eight stories tracing the downs and ups of life as we now know it. We thank all of those who shared their experiences.

A love story the virus ended

Jake Pass and Yoko Tsumagari. Credit: Yoko Tsumagari

On Valentine’s Day 16 years ago, Yoko Tsumagari gave Jake Pass an intentional signal. 

Her email message was simple, “I’m thinking of you.” His response was also simple: “You made my day.” They both lived in Southern Japan. 

They’ve been in a relationship ever since. 

The email exchange came three days after they’d met in person for the first time after eight months of online correspondence, though they lived only a 40-minute train ride apart. The date of their first meeting was Feb. 11. 

The couple married in 2011 – on Feb. 11. They have one child, a daughter. They moved to Berkeley four and half years ago. Pass grew up in San Francisco.

Their romance really started when Tsumagari responded to a note Pass posted on a bulletin board at an international center in Fukuoka, saying he was looking for new friends. “Let’s talk about ourselves and healing the planet,” she remembers the posting said. She was looking for people with whom to practice English. 

Her attraction wasn’t immediate. But, Tsumagari said, “after saying goodbye, I felt something warm in my heart, and I thought, ‘I’m going to see him again.’”

And there was another sign: “He wrote that [bulletin board] message in orange, and I loved orange at the time, and I thought, ‘Oh, I have to contact him,’” she said. 

Tsumagari worked as a florist, before learning English and getting a job in the international department of a semiconductor company. 

Pass lived mostly in Japan since leaving the Bay Area in his early 20s, save for six years in Maui. He mainly taught English. 

February was a special time of the year for the couple, a month of anniversaries. 

This February, however, has been solemnly different.

Pass, 58, was taken off life support at Kaiser Oakland Tuesday morning. His family decided this is what he would have wanted.

Pass, who has taught ESL remotely since the start of the pandemic, had tested positive for the virus in early January. He was vaccinated and boosted. 

The family has always been mindful of COVID-19 safety, with regular testing, and careful attention to masking and social distancing. Tsumagari works at Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective, which requires vaccination and also offers on-site testing to employees and their families. 

In fact, Pass first tested positive after a Cheese Board test. He wasn’t feeling well, and Tsumagari assumed she’d passed him her recent cold. The whole family decided to test. Tsumagari and their daughter were negative.

“He was quite casual [about the positive test]. He thought that he was going to get better. He wasn’t scared or worried,” she said. 

She, however, was a little worried, Tsumagari said. “I was hoping.”

But his condition worsened, and rapidly. 

A camper, swimmer and radio DJ

Yoko Tsumagari and Jake Pass. Courtesy: Yoko Tsumagari

For a couple of years, Pass hadn’t been feeling well, Tsumagari said, with intermittent fevers, pain, tingling, and numbness —  neuropathy. “I think it started around 2018, and he saw so many doctors to get diagnosed,” she said. 

That diagnosis never came.

He was immunocompromised, Tsumagari said, putting him at greater risk for serious illness and death, even after vaccination. 

His illness seemed to come on quickly, coinciding with the start of the pandemic. It wasn’t long ago, Tsumagari said, that her husband was biking, hiking and swimming laps at the Berkeley YMCA until the beginning of the first lockdown.

Early in the pandemic, the family often took off on weekend trips, a welcome escape from lockdown. They stayed in nearby parks, concocting tasty meals over a camp stove, taking in the fresh air.

A love for nature, food, family, travel — and sharing all of this with their daughter — was the couple’s bond. 

In Japan, they explored low-budget eateries or recipes, mineral hot springs and wild places. In California, he showed her natural wonders and helped her understand local customs. 

A lover of music, media and culture, Pass DJ’d radio shows in Japan, hosting several shows, with music and commentary. He liked classic rock, Tsumagari said. Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead. And he liked sharing these interests with others. 

Tsumagari got a kick out of hearing him on the radio in Japan, but, she said, she prefers world music and jazz. “More easy stuff.”  

Visits through a window

Pass’s health kept getting worse. The search for a diagnosis was exhausting and depressing, Tsumagari said. 

Then came COVID-19.

With the virus, his condition slid. He became confused, and had trouble with coordination. After a video appointment with a doctor, and against her husband’s wishes, Tsumagari drove him to the ER on Jan. 12, with their 10-year-old daughter.

He spent weeks in the ICU, ventilated and mostly unconscious, before his death.

The trip to the ER was the last time Tsumagari touched her husband, or saw him in person. The same for their daughter. 

They were separated by hospital walls. By the highly contagious virus.

She could look at him through a glass window, and watch him via video call — gladly arranged by hospital staff. Their daughter wasn’t allowed in the hospital, but visited her dad through video calls. 

On a recent window visit, Tsumagari said, “He was sleeping peacefully.” He was also declining, she said.

Support and soup

Tsumagari said she became strong after giving birth to her daughter, less emotional, less prone to crying.

But at times in our conversations, her voice cracked. She was devastated, she said. 

She tried to stay focused on their many good memories. She browsed photos. She wrapped her daughter in gentle honesty, sharing news about her dad’s health, while creating an assurance of normalcy —  playdates, family movie nights — along with those talks.

Pass’s mother, 87, still lives in Berkeley, and he had one sister in San Francisco, and one in Hawaii. She’s in Berkeley now.

In Pass’s final days, family, friends and colleagues kept her spirits lifted, her heart full, Tsumagari said. 

“We are getting so much support,” she said on Sunday. People were bringing food, groceries, flowers. 

“To know we have the connection and the support, that helps me to go through this time. My coworkers, our daughter’s friend’s parents, my Japanese friends, our friends.” 

She was in contact with her sister in Japan, who in turn was sharing news with their parents, who live in the countryside and don’t have a computer or smartphone. 

Berkeley has become her home, Tsumagari said. 

A fellow Cheese Board worker set up a Go Fund Me for the family. Tsumagari started working at the collective two years ago. Her colleagues have donated their sick time. She said she was grateful and almost stunned by the actions. “I feel really supported,” she said. 

While her husband was in the hospital, there were a few other soothing sources, Tsumagari said. Sometimes it’s the simpler things that help most in times of distress.“I’m making soup with beans a lot,” she said Sunday, praising a reliable goodness. “It’s really comforting, cooking beans, cooking soup, eating soup. Really comforting.” — Kate Rauch

Still having nightmares about her father’s death

Andrea Kean and David Spinner. File photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

Within the first month of the pandemic, Andrea Kean’s family had already been ravaged by the virus. Her 95-year-old father died of COVID-19, alone in a Philadelphia hospital, and her mother was sick with the virus, too. When she should have been grieving, Kean had to take care of her husband, David Spinner, who had also fallen extremely ill from the disease. 

Spinner spent weeks in bed, struggling to breathe, scared to fall asleep for fear he wouldn’t wake up. Kean helped nurse Spinner back to health. Kean’s mother recovered from the virus, but not from the loss of her husband, and died in December 2020 at age 92.

Two years later, the virus continues to profoundly shape Kean and Spinner’s lives. Even as vaccines and boosters have come along, offering significant protection against serious illness and death, the pair remain extremely cautious, altering their daily choices about where they go and what they do.

“Everything has changed,” Kean said. They’re traumatized by their early experiences with the pandemic. Kean likens what she’s going through to PTSD. Spinner calls it “mental scars.”  

“I don’t want to spend the whole rest of my life just hiding from a virus.”

An example: Spinner, 65, rides a stationary bike everyday. Even after he had fully recovered from his bout with the virus, he kept a pulse oximeter next to the bike, impulsively checking his blood oxygen saturation, a vestige from his battle with COVID-19.  

They don’t want to contract the virus, and they’ll do everything they can to avoid it. There’s so much that Spinner and Kean want to do, but feel like they can’t. Travel. Eat at restaurants. Catch a movie in theaters. They know all that’s stopping them is themselves, but “we’re just skittish about the world now,” Spinner said.

When they do venture out, they take painstaking precautions. They organize their errands so that it will be easier to get tested afterward. Before an outing with friends, they test, and make sure they don’t go anywhere in between. They had planned to visit Kean’s daughter in Chicago just as the omicron surge began. But in the week leading up to the trip, they were “a mess,” Spinner said, losing sleep with worry. They ultimately decided to skip the plane ride and booked a private room on an Amtrak train instead.

“It’s pretty pathetic, actually, because we used to be such adventurous people,” said Kean, who has blue hair and once spent two years living in her car. “I’m not a person who’s normally timid.”

And then there’s the lack of closure. The death of her parents is part of the larger narrative of the pandemic, a story that is continuing to unravel. 

“My parents’ death … doesn’t really belong to me,” said Kean, whose father died alone in the hospital. Two years later, Kean still has nightmares about his death. 

And yet, life must go on. Spinner and Kean just don’t know how, or when. “I don’t want to spend the whole rest of my life just hiding from a virus,” Kean said. “We’re going to have to brave it,” agreed Spinner.

Eventually, they expect COVID-19 will be endemic and they will come to terms with the risk of contracting it. Kean thinks that day will come sometime in the next year; Spinner knows it’s coming, too, but he still worries. Even when he gets the flu, he’s sick for three weeks.

For now, it’s little steps. The two have planned an outing to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. BART still doesn’t feel safe, they decided, so they agreed to drive. — Ally Markovich

Staying physically separated within their own house

Susana Witte and husband Ralph Nelson pose for a photo in their Berkeley home on Feb. 2, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

In many ways for Susana Witte, pandemic living is nothing new – not delta, not omicron, not the first mystery-filled COVID-19 wave that arrived in the Bay Area in 2020. Familiar is the risk of close contact with others. Familiar are the masks and sanitizing. Familiar is the — relative — safety of the bubble, of staying indoors and away from people to protect your health, perhaps even your life.

Witte, of West Berkeley, has an autoimmune disorder requiring medication that zaps her natural ability to fight disease. 

“The pandemic in a way started for me the moment I started taking all of these drugs because any cold or flu can throw my whole body off, any communicable disease, because of my lack of defenses,” said Witte, 67, who was diagnosed five years ago with mononeuritis multiplex and chronic fatigue syndrome. She takes powerful immunosuppressant medicines, ramping up along with her symptoms. 

“I’ve been wearing masks and social distancing for a while.”

In fact, the country’s collective pandemic prevention steps helped Witte, because as everyone donned face coverings and avoided closeness, she was better protected from getting sick. 

“Poor guy, he comes home from wearing a mask all day long and I’m forcing him to wear a mask inside the house around me.”

Increasingly dependent on a wheelchair or walker, Witte’s condition affects her mobility. She said she is not sure if she would survive COVID-19, but if she did, “I don’t think I would be able to walk ever again. My abilities would be seriously compromised.”

The early pandemic “was actually a horrible moment for our entire nation, for all of our neighbors. Everyone was immersed in all that they couldn’t do,” Witte said. “But my personal experience was of relief.”

But in other ways, each wave of COVID-19 pushes Witte to new levels of emotional wear and tear, of concern for herself, and for her loved ones. 

Imagine, she reflects, “What is it like for my husband, to know that he could be the one that infects me?”

Witte is a painter and sculptor who worked at Autumn Press for many years. Her husband, Ralph Nelson, is a jazz guitarist and a public school counselor in Alameda – work that he loves, excels at, and that the family needs, Witte said.

It’s also a front-line job, with plenty of social contact. “My husband has got to work every day and this new variant is spreading in ways that we don’t quite understand,” she said a few weeks ago.

When schools were remote, earlier in the pandemic, her fears mixed with relief. 

“My life changed dramatically once the pandemic started and he was sent home because I had the certainty that he was not exposed to this young petri dish generator that teenagers can be,” Witte said. This was a particularly bad time for her health-wise, she said, and she appreciated that her husband could help her at home.

Nelson takes a COVID-19 rapid test each time he returns home. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Now that Nelson is back to work, the mixed bag continues in a different way. She needs his help, but so do his students, she said. “He does a beautiful job. It makes a tremendous difference that he’s there. Especially for kids that are in a crisis.”

She doesn’t take for granted the steps Nelson’s school takes to keep staff and students safe, the testing and sanitation, and knows they are fortunate in this.

Witte amplifies precautions with each twist of the pandemic. Masking got super serious with delta, even inside her house. This eased off when her husband worked remotely. 

With omicron, their daily home life became an exercise in germ avoidance. They scheduled their shared-room times separately, with her waking up early to use the bathroom and kitchen, then retreating to her bedroom, for his turn.

She emerged again after he’d gone to work. Opened the windows. Enjoyed the house.

This repeated in the evenings. When she knew her husband would be home soon, “I make sure I have my last snack or meal. I groom myself, brush my teeth, whatever. And then I go in my bedroom and stay there,” Witte said.

Their daily routines are a COVID-19 test-results-jagged reality. Things ease up with each negative result. Then clamp back down until the next result appears. 

Nelson masks at home until that test strip shows negative. Then they both loosen up. 

“Poor guy, he comes home from wearing a mask all day long and I’m forcing him to wear a mask inside the house around me,” she said. “It creates a bit of tension.”

So far, neither has gotten the virus.

Witte’s Berkeley home is filled with her art and mementos from her life. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Deeply influenced by her personal history, Witte immigrated to the U.S. from a politically volatile Uruguay when she was 17, with her sister.

“I’m a child of war. I was a teenager during the dirty wars in Uruguay and it was no longer safe to stay. I was part of a student movement targeted for destruction,” Witte said. Many of her protest friends, she said, “disappeared,” victims of the militant Jose María Bordaberry’s regime. 

Her parents, in turn, were Jewish European immigrants to Uruguay, escaping the Holocaust. 

Witte and Nelson have one son, Max, 30, who lives in Oakland and works in tech. He’s the first person on her side of the family to leave home with freedom, not to escape, she reflected. “He’s the first one I know who left home voluntarily. … He didn’t have to go to the army, he didn’t have to go to a concentration camp.” 

Witte has had three vaccine doses, with another planned for March or April.

“My goal is to center my senses, to center my sense of life on my joy of being alive. Life is good,” Witte said. “There are a thousand million reasons why I shouldn’t be alive, but I am.” — Kate Rauch

Released from prison just as the pandemic began

LaShawn Hammond in Ohlone Park on Feb. 12, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

For LaShawn Hammond, COVID-19 added a touch of the surreal to an already challenging transition.

Hammond was on his last month of a prison sentence in Texas when early stories of the deadly virus hit the news. At that point, no one in prison with him was sick with the virus, not that he knew of anyway, and COVID-19 felt far away. 

In prison, they felt safe, at least from COVID-19.

Then, he returned to the outside world.

“We were watching the news while it was coming out, and about a month later you get released,” said Hammond, 45, who was raised in Oakland and now lives in Berkeley in a shelter for people without permanent housing. 

“It’s been a real interesting thing for me,” he went on. “Because when it first came out, I was incarcerated. When it amped, I was just getting released.”

Hammond moved to Dallas from the Bay Area about 15 years ago.  Incarcerated for two years, he got out in 2020.

Out to a new world order of social distancing, masking, sanitizing, testing, vaccinating, and self-isolation. No longer behind bars, he entered a new a kind of lockdown.

“It’s been like an up and down thing. With everything,” Hammond said. “It made dating hard,” for one thing, he said. “Like meeting people and being able to interact with people — it’s hard to do any of that now.”

After his release, Hammond got decent employment near Dallas, and, for a while, things felt OK, hopeful — even with COVID-19, he said. “At the time it mellowed out I got a good job at a factory.”

But in a whirlwind, this changed. His employer required COVID-19 testing, and many workers were resistant. “So, they shut it down,” Hammond said.

Hammond lost his job. He lost his house.

He decided to move back to the East Bay, to regroup, he said.

“It’s been like an up and down thing. With everything.”

He didn’t have many close relatives left in the area, but was in touch with a sister. His parents and grandparents had passed. Hammond also has roots in Louisiana, where most of his family lived before migrating to California. These connections, too, are dwindling. 

But in many ways, the East Bay was still home. 

“There’s a lot more resources out here to help you than there was in Dallas,” said Hammond, who has been homeless since returning to the Bay Area in October 2021, staying in Berkeley’s Dwight Way shelter.

One of these resources is the nonprofit Downtown Streets Team, where Hammond is a volunteer. He works about four hours a day, mainly in neighborhoods of South Berkeley, cleaning sidewalks and streets. The program, which also provides services such as employment assistance, thanks its volunteers with gift cards to grocery stores, drug stores and restaurants.

Smiles from people walking by are another reward, Hammond said. 

So far, Berkeley life is hitting a kind of sweet spot, Hammond said. Especially compared with years past. It’s his first time living in the city.

“I love Berkeley – the culture, the people. It’s cool. It’s peace of mind for me,” he said.

LaShawn Hammond in Ohlone Park. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

It’s about the people, he said. “There’s negative people everywhere, but I’ve met a lot of good people here in Berkeley.”  

Streets Team is a big lift, he said.

“It’s awesome. They have some really nice people up there that really care about you and that’s a world of difference.”

Even sweet spots get bumpy, though. 

A few weeks ago, Hammond tested positive for COVID-19, along with the majority of people in his shelter, he said. They quarantined in a hotel near the Oakland Airport, one person per room, meals delivered to the door.

Hammond said he had a few bad days, with back pain, stomach pain and flu-like symptoms.

“The only thing I was good at was laying down, and that was for two or three days,” he said of his time in the motel.

Back now at the shelter, and feeling better, he takes his COVID-19 survivor status in stride. Mainly, he said, it reinforces his suspicion of vaccines. “That’s why I don’t understand why we need to take them, we’re still going to get sick,” he said. 

Though not political about it, Hammond is skeptical of the value of vaccines, and can’t help reflecting on who’s made money from the pandemic, and who hasn’t, he said. He knows others disagree. 

I don’t understand why every six months another variant comes out. I’m tired of the lawmakers.

Hammond is vaccinated. This is a requirement for staying at the shelter. He isn’t yet boosted.  

He thinks of the pharmaceutical companies, and health care companies, and government officials who are doing financially OK with the pandemic, or far better than OK. And he thinks of others, who aren’t. “Everyone else is hurting financially; physically, we’re just doing bad,” he said.

“I don’t understand why every six months another variant comes out. I’m tired of the lawmakers. They’re all liars. We weren’t prepared for this. I feel like all of this is about money,” he said.

“Struggle.” That’s Hammond’s one-word description of the pandemic.

“I feel that it’s bad that all this had to happen at this time in our lives as human beings,” he said. 

But day by day, Hammond tries to stay focused on his goal. To get his own housing, to get decent work that pays enough for his independence; hopefully, to get work that not only pays a living but that he enjoys. He thinks back to an event staffing job he had in Dallas which included parking assistance — he liked that.

“I’m kind of mentally worn down, but I have a goal — to get out of the shelter,” Hammond said. “To make something of myself. And maybe, if possible, to try to help other people.” 

One of his dreams, he said, is to become financially comfortable enough that he can spread his resources.  “That’s what makes me happy. Helping others.” — Kate Rauch

Without his job, he ‘had nothing to do’

Massage therapist Alex Schoenfeldt at Berkeley Deep Sports Massage on Feb. 8, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Alex Schoenfeldt’s livelihood is touch. Close contact. Other human beings.

A massage therapist, Schoenfeldt’s pandemic life has been like a jerky horse ride. Pulls of the reins to slow things down; a yank to bring things to a halt. Then off again, loosening the reins and down the trail, inviting clients back, opening doors. Another jerk to slow down again.

Schoenfeldt has a mantra: “I can ride this out. I can ride this out.”

The owner of Berkeley Deep Sports Massage on San Pablo Avenue, Schoenfeldt, 52, also lives in Berkeley. During COVID-19’s bumpy ride, he’s been committed to health safety, following the regulations and prevention guidelines.

He’s also sweated to keep his business alive, for his sake, and for that of the other massage therapists he employs, he said. He’s used savings, taken out various loans, received grants. 

It’s taken a toll, Schoenfeldt said. He’s had pandemic depression, along with lost income.

“It was awful,” Schoenfeldt said, referring to the seven months in 2020 he was required to close the doors of his business and self-isolate at home. “My whole job for seven months was to not spread COVID. I couldn’t make money, I didn’t have my job, and I had nothing to do.

It was really hard on me mentally.”

He took out payday loans to support his four employees for a few months. After this, they got unemployment. 

His spouse, a teacher at King Middle School, was teaching remotely from home, which was rough for her and her students, as well as for him, he said. He didn’t know what to do with himself, and sharing an enclosed space – their home – while his spouse worked was hard. 

COVID-19 regulations for massage studios changed with the behavior of the virus, from the complete closure in 2020, to opening only for people with referrals from doctors, to opening to everyone again, then back to just medical referrals, and now back to the general public. 

Recently – very recently – Schoenfeldt is sensing what might be a post-omicron lift. Of his spirits, and of his business.

Massage therapist Alex Schoenfeldt at Berkeley Deep Sports Massage. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“Things have actually been better than ever,” he said, noting an upswing in appointments. All of a sudden 20 people booked massages in the next two weeks.”

His mood is optimistic.

“Getting back to work helped a lot,” he said of his depression. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten to where I was before. I don’t know if I’m completely out of it.”

Some but not all of his employees have returned, he said.

A licensed massage therapist in Berkeley for 30 years, Schoenfeldt attributes his recent boost in customers to being a survivor. Many similar businesses shut down or moved, he said, due to the pandemic. He knows he’s fortunate.

“We were able to survive and not all competitors could. A lot left the area and got different jobs.”

Professional massage normally tends to be a transient occupation, with masseuses coming and going from the field, he said. But the pandemic heightened this.

“Life’s a lot more uncertain than I thought it was.”

Schoenfeldt moved to Berkeley from Texas when he was a young adult. His studio specializes in deep tissue therapeutic massage, sought after by the achy-active — mobile people with injuries or pain. Its motto is: For people who think a good massage should hurt a little bit.

“This is a sports practice; we get a lot of weekend warriors. … Biking, hiking, climbing, CrossFit,” he said, describing people with desk jobs during the week who throw themselves into sport on the weekends. He likes helping to relieve pain. “We don’t offer a spa massage.”

Some of his regular clients have held back during COVID-19, not comfortable with the close contact. But others still sought the hands-on therapy when possible — masking and sanitizing along the way. Schoenfeldt also had air filters installed.

“I have some clients that have never come back. Other clients are nervous. Everyone is masking.”

COVID-19 has brought personal lessons, some profound, Schoenfeldt said.

“Honestly, in some ways it’s changed me for the better,” he said. “There are things I used to take for granted that I don’t anymore.”

Such as spending time with family.

He recently traveled to North Carolina for a family gathering where he enjoyed the company of his father, sister and stepmother, along with cousins, aunts and uncles.

“I remember looking around at my family and thinking I better appreciate this because this might not happen again,” Schoenfeldt said. “This could be the last time I see people if things get bad again.”

There are no guarantees, he said.

“Life’s a lot more uncertain than I thought it was.” — Kate Rauch

A doctor trying ‘to hold on and maintain’

Dr. Maggie Edmunds works from her dining table on Jan. 25, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

For a brief window, it felt like she could go back to work in person, hang out with colleagues, share sorrows and successes, identify needs, maybe even switch gears from the medical environment to swap stories of kids or good restaurant finds.

The promise was tantalizing, water for a very dry sponge.

But then came omicron, and Maggie Edmunds, a family physician and deputy chief medical officer for LifeLong Medical Care, opted to maintain her bedroom home-office — at least for a while longer.

LifeLong operates dental, school, and community health clinics, including four in Berkeley. 

Dr. Maggie Edmunds and her husband, Chris, at their Berkeley home. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Right before omicron, the LifeLong staff was eagerly – and cautiously – preparing for some degree of hanging-out-together normalcy. “People were at a point where they were getting ready to sort of gather again,” said Edmunds, who lives in Southwest Berkeley with her two young kids and husband.

“We were trying to figure out how we could share food together outdoors. That had been missing for two years.”

She added: “The word ‘fun’ is coming to my mind.”

Then omicron swept into the East Bay with a wallop.

“We’re seeing it impact our staff,” Edmunds said in mid-January. “We’re just doing everything we can to hold on and maintain. We’re asking, “Oh my gosh, are we done yet? When is this going to pass?’ . . . It’s very hard.”

“The need for social relationships and being together in order to do the hard work,” Edmunds described. With omicron, she said, “We had to take it all away again.”

Though now in administration, Edmunds comes from a clinical care background, and still puts in hours in LifeLong’s newborn clinic at Alta Bates Hospital.

She knows the importance of in-person social support in the workplace, especially in intense and trying times, such as now. 

“It’s very different going through a tough day or a hard day when you’re isolated by yourself versus there with the folks that you trust and know are working with and for the community for the same reasons you are, and you can do this together,” she said.

“Both of these things have been stripped away for the past two years because so much is virtual.” 

Born and raised in Minnesota, Edmunds moved to Berkeley in 1999. She started at LifeLong in 2020, though she’d volunteered 20 years ago at one of the nonprofit’s first clinics, located in Berkeley — an experience that piqued her interest in medicine.

As a clinical care manager, her job includes helping to manage LifeLong’s pandemic response – the mazes and hurdles of testing, vaccination, boosting. Supplies. Staffing. Patient access. 

“We’re asking, “Oh my gosh, are we done yet? When is this going to pass?’ . . . It’s very hard.”

One way she tries to help, she said, is by being as available as she possibly can as a boss, as a colleague. “It’s important for people to know that I’m a resource and to know that I will be accountable and try not to take things personally.” 

Even with Berkeley’s high vaccination rate, Edmunds saw more people in her social circle get diagnosed with COVID-19 during omicron, which hadn’t been her experience before. 

Her home life with husband and kids, became a home office as well. Everyone has to adjust. This took a while, she said, but “I feel like we have a rhythm now.” 

Her husband, who has a background in chemistry and sculpture, is also based at home and doing much of the child care. He’s currently building an ADU in their backyard.

As omicron abates, Edmunds hopes to get back to the office as much as she can.

There have been silver linings. 

A runner currently training for the Berkeley half-marathon, Edmunds closes her (bedroom) office door at the end of her work day and often heads outside to the neighborhood. Her work sometimes spills to the dining room table, especially when it’s not needed for kids’ art projects or family meals. 

“My neighbors are awesome and amazing,” she said. “I’ve met such good friends.”

She recalls early pandemic days, when people would “come out in the evening and stand far apart and talk.” It’s become a little more relaxed, she said, as connections gel. “There’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood and they know each other.”

Social pods, formed during the mandatory homeschool days, are also a pandemic sweet spot. 

“Some of my closest friends now are my children’s friend’s parents. Some of these relationships have grown during the pandemic because we podded up to figure out how to do shared child care, before the schools went back,” Edmunds said.

“People are trying to navigate what’s an acceptable risk for yourself and for your family.” 

It’s fatiguing, she acknowledges. 

Omicron, Edmunds said, seems to have sent people in two directions, back into isolation rather than trying to figure out risks, or, the opposite: “I’m tired. I’m just going to do what I want.”

Texting, emailing, talking with old friends, including buddies from medical school is therapeutic, she said. “It helps to normalize.” — Kate Rauch

‘I can’t think of a better time to have a baby, actually’

Carlos and Graciela Velasquez and their baby Matías dance on the back deck of their Berkeley home on Jan. 24, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Right after Thanksgiving, Graciela and Carlos Velasquez shut the world out, and shut themselves in. Recent residents of Berkeley, the couple were focused on one main thing at that time: to avoid COVID-19 at all costs. Their first baby was due Dec. 24.

As omicron swirled, the Velasquezes hunkered down to protect everyone’s health, but also to make sure they could follow their dream by having the baby in the San Francisco Birth Center, a homelike hospital alternative, run by midwives.

They knew if Graciela tested positive, she couldn’t give birth at the center. And if Carlos got the virus, he wouldn’t be able to be there with his wife.

Carlos and Graciela Velasquez and their baby Matias. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Matías Noah was born on Dec. 27, a healthy bundle of boy. His father greeted him at birth.

“It worked,” Graciela said, of their self-isolation. Even their mothers, who live in the area, weren’t allowed in their house. “My ultimate goal was to give birth at the center. … And now he’s here. We are so lucky.”

Carlos and Graciela bought a house in West Berkeley this summer, making the move from San Francisco. Carlos works for the California Public Utilities Commission in energy policy — remotely in the pandemic. Graciela is a self-employed reading teacher, also remote, specializing in people with dyslexia and other learning disorders. 

“The pandemic brought our daily routines to a halt,” Carlos said. “We decided it was a good time to slow down the music and begin to plan for a family. We also shifted into gear a long-standing plan to buy a home.” 

In many ways, he literally means slow the music down.

The couple enjoy their jobs. But their fervor, at least until Dec. 27, is salsa dancing.

Carlos and Graciela Velasquez salsa dance on the back deck of their Berkeley home. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

They’re serious longtime dancers and performers. They met salsa dancing. They’ve traveled salsa dancing. 

And hopefully, they both say, they’ll continue as new parents – at least a little. 

“Matías is going to make it more challenging, but we love it enough to keep doing it,” Carlos said. 

“Just once a week, I can definitely do that; eventually,” Graciela said, with the soft gurgles of breastfeeding Matías in the background.

Now, the evenings of steamy San Francisco salsa are a past chapter for the couple, with their energies – and delight — focused on their son.

Nesting is a great fit for a pandemic, they said.

“I can’t think of a better time to have a baby actually, to have something else to focus on. Every time you read the news you see another wave, infection rates go up, vaccinated versus unvaccinated, the politics. We have, in my opinion, more important things to worry about,” Carlos said. “As long as my family is safe.”

That’s been the case so far. “Our good fortune has made us appreciate our plans and the birth of our son that much more. We truly are blessed. Our hearts go out to those who have been less fortunate.”

Meanwhile, they’ve witnessed the pandemic’s impact on their dancing world, and it’s been bittersweet.

Live venues have limited patrons, closed for long stretches, limited patrons again with omicron, in addition to the required masking, vaccination, and social distance — major challenges for businesses that specialize in flirtatious dancing.

“I’d always imagined being pregnant and dancing.”

Some of the salsa world went online successfully, Carlos said. Teachers and performers adapted to Zoom and YouTube. An international dance culture, salsa’s global reach is enhanced via computer.

“It’s still robust in a different way. But the club owners obviously took a hit,” Carlos said.

Graciela was part of a team of San Francisco-based women dancers. “I’d always imagined being pregnant and dancing. I dreamed that I wanted to be that woman who dances through the pregnancy.”

But with the COVID-19 roller-coaster, “my team, it kind of disintegrated. People stopped dancing,” she said. She also had some injuries that made a relaxed pregnancy necessary. 

“We got used to staying home,” Graciela said. “If I’d had a busy dance life it would have been harder with a baby. I would have felt like I was missing out. It’s nice to have the focus on him now.” 

As for Matías and salsa music? 

So far, he prefers Brazilian bossa nova. 

“Matías really digs it because it relaxes him,” Carlos said. “It’s so mellow, it creates a relaxed ambience.” — Kate Rauch

Belting out rock ’n’ roll tunes through a KN95

If you walk much around Berkeley, hitting the farmers markets or cafes on Shattuck or San Pablo, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Rabia and Keizo Yamazawa — or, even more likely, heard them.

The married musical duo — vocals, guitar, electric drums when they can get the power — are longtime regulars in Berkeley’s busking scene. Rabia, known best as Rev. Rabia (she’s ordained by the Universal Life Church ), and Keizo combine their talents and enthusiasm for a rhythm and blues sound. Though lately, Rabia says, they’ve been doing more ’60s rock ’n’ roll.

Rabia Yamazawa outside the New School in Berkeley. Credit: Pam Taylor

Their stage name: Rev. Rabia with the guitarist from Hanzo the Razor

They also have day jobs, or employment that keeps them in rent, heat, and food. Or had. Some of their stable work was cut due to COVID-19. They live in Richmond.

Keizo, 66, worked for six years at Berkeley’s Hida Tool & Hardware Company, which specializes in Japanese tools for woodworking, gardening, or the kitchen. He was laid off early in the pandemic, opting not to go back.

And Rabia, 63, is a preschool teacher at New School of Berkeley and recently retired from the Albany Unified School District, where she was a paraeducator and driver, for special needs students. (Disclosure: Rabia assisted in classrooms of this writer’s daughter years ago.)

She lost hours in both jobs when schools went remote, which led to her Albany retirement. She only recently went back to the New School in 2022. Like many places, the school faces staffing shortages, and Rabia, a longtime teacher there who loves its community, is glad to step in. The paychecks matter, too.

The musicians also lost gigs. Venues were closed. Hours restricted. Indoor performances canceled. Outdoor curtailed. 

Both have conditions that make them high risk for COVID-19, so they embrace all safety measures and are vaccinated. Rabia has diabetes, and Keizo heart disease. 

Even so, Rabia said of the pandemic’s darkest days, “All in all, Keizo and I did OK.”

A combination of unemployment, part-time hours, and some new playing locations have kept the couple afloat. A roll-with-punches attitude also helps.

Good times and bad, flush and scratching, is familiar ground for many musicians, including the Yamazawas. They’ve experienced plenty of ups and downs. Rabia grew up in Sacramento in a large family, moving to the Bay Area in her 20s for school. Keizo, who is also a professional photographer, immigrated to the U.S. from Japan about two decades ago. They both have young adult daughters. Rabia’s daughter, Isis Woz, lives in Berkeley. Keizo’s daughter is in Japan. 

“I can get the words out, but whether or not they hear me, I don’t know.”

They met playing music.

The pandemic has taught them some interesting things. Who knew, for example, a performer could sing through a mask. 

“I actually ended up singing 90% of the time with my mask on,” Rabia said.

She wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it’s been smoother than she thought. She pauses. “It’s fun,” she says.

She used to wear cloth masks, but now it’s a KN95, in keeping with the latest health advice. Other than her glasses fogging up, she’s gotten pretty comfortable with the setup, she said.

In fact, given her health issues, she said, she may wear a mask performing even if and when COVID-19 goes away. “Like during flu season, I’ll wear a mask.”

And what’s been the audience’s response to rock ’n’ roll through a KN95?

“I don’t know. I don’t know how many people are listening,” Rabia said, with a laugh. “I can get the words out, but whether or not they hear me, I don’t know.” 

As long as she’s making music, she feels pretty good, she said. 

“It’s like breathing. There’s nothing else.” — Kate Rauch

Berkeleyside staff

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