Sixty-two Berkeley residents have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to city data. That puts Berkeley’s COVID-19 death rate — 53 per 100,000 residents — among the lowest in California. 

Only two counties — the rural Alpine and Mono counties on the Nevada border — have lower death rates than the city of Berkeley, which has its own health department and publishes its COVID-19 data separately from Alameda County. In the rest of the county, the COVID-19 death rate is more than twice as high as in Berkeley, with 124 deaths per 100,000 residents. 

In Berkeley, COVID-19 was the seventh-leading cause of death in 2020 and was tied with accidents as the sixth-leading cause of death in 2021, according to state vital records data. In both years, cancer was the leading cause of death, followed by heart disease. In the United States, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in both 2020 and 2021.

Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer, attributed the city’s low COVID-19 death rate to its high vaccination rate, first and foremost, as well as to a healthier and younger population that is more likely to wear masks than in many other parts of the state.

Almost 80% of Berkeley’s COVID-19 deaths came in the first year of the pandemic, before vaccines became universally available. Forty-nine people died by the end of February 2021. Since March 2021, at least 11 more people have died. 

The latest surge, driven by omicron sub variant BA.5, has led to a notable uptick in hospitalizations in Alameda County, but there has not been a corresponding rise in deaths in Berkeley, at least at this point in the surge.

Berkeley’s data show only people who died from COVID-19, not those who happened to be infected with the virus when they died.

Most of those who’ve died of COVID-19 in Berkeley are elderly and/or Black

The demographic breakdown of COVID-19 deaths in Berkeley has remained similar since Berkeleyside last analyzed the data in January 2021. 

Forty-four of the 62 people who’ve died in Berkeley since the start of the pandemic were over 70 years old. Fourteen were between 51 and 70 years old. And two were between 31 and 50. No one aged 30 or younger has died from COVID-19 in Berkeley. 

Black people are overrepresented in Berkeley’s COVID-19 deaths. While Black residents make up just 8% of the city’s population, they account for 33% of deaths from the virus. 

Latinos are evenly represented in the city’s COVID-19 fatalities. About 15% of residents are Latino, and they make up 14% of fatalities. 

White and Asian people are underrepresented in the city’s deaths. White people make up 50% of Berkeley’s population but only 38% of the city’s COVID-19 deaths; Asian people, at 20% of the population, make up just 8% of deaths. 

“Our data shows that we are weathering this pandemic better than many communities in our region,” Lisa Warhuus, the city’s health director, wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. But, she added, some groups have borne the brunt of serious illness and death.

Role of vaccination in curbing serious illness and death

Berkeley is one of the most vaccinated communities in the state. Ninety-four-percent of residents are vaccinated with two doses of the vaccine and 84% of residents have received at least one booster shot. 

“The most important thing is that we have a very good vaccination rate overall, and we also have a very high booster rate,” said Hernandez. “The vaccine and the booster are especially protective against severe disease.” 

Across California, unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people. Berkeley has not published data on the vaccination status of those who’ve died from COVID-19.

Hernandez said Berkeley has run numerous outreach campaigns to increase access to and knowledge of the vaccine among communities with lower vaccination rates, including door knocking in South and West Berkeley, offering seniors of color rides to get vaccinated, running vaccine clinics at schools with the help of Berkeley Unified School District and recruiting young people to appear on social media ads promoting vaccination, among other strategies.  

Ninety-eight-percent of Latinos in Berkeley have received two doses of the vaccine, the most of any racial or ethnic group in the city. Across California, just 56% of Latinos have received two doses. 

Ninety-two percent of Asian people, 87% of white people, 79% of Black people and 46% of multi-racial or Native American people have received two doses of the vaccine. 

Featured photo: Pete Rosos

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...