A nurse wears a face shield during work hours at the Chaparral House, a senior facility in Southwest Berkeley, in August 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Case rates of COVID-19 are rising in Berkeley and Alameda County, in line with trends from previous pandemic winters.

Public health officials are urging the community to approach the holiday season with the same caution they did last year during the omicron surge — by wearing tight-fitting, effective masks when going to indoor places like restaurants, bars, and stores, and by testing and handwashing regularly. Residents are urged to get vaccinated for both COVID-19 and seasonal flu, if they haven’t already.

Hospitalizations and COVID-19 levels in wastewater are up, but we have more tools to blunt pandemic’s impact

Currently, Berkeley is averaging about 18 cases daily, based on a weekly average for every 100,000 people, a little below the countywide average of 23 daily cases.

The rising caseloads are being driven by travel, indoor gatherings, closed windows and poor ventilation. This year, the numbers are exacerbated by the flu season and respiratory syncytial virus, another viral respiratory disease.

Dr. Joanna Locke, COVID-guidance lead at the Alameda County Public Health Department, indicated that the current number of reported cases does not accurately reflect infection levels throughout the county. She said that PCR test data only provides an indication of possible trends, while wastewater surveillance, which detects and measures the amount of virus present at local wastewater treatment plants, provides a more accurate snapshot of how widespread infection levels are. 

A screenshot of the Cal-SuWers Network Dashboard on Dec. 14, 2022, shows steeply increasing levels of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in Alameda County wastewater. Source: California Department of Public Health

Alameda County rose to “medium” community level last week, based on a U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention metric that take into account test positivity, as well as sewage data, hospitalizations and more.

“Our COVID has definitely been rising steadily since October and probably will continue rising for a bit,” said Locke. “I think we probably will not hit our peak before the holidays. How far after the holidays? It’s hard to say.”

Last year, average new hospitalizations in the county were as low as 12 people weekly in December 2021 before rising to a peak of 122 that January. Average new hospitalizations weekly are currently at 40 people, and rising. The numbers are worse than they were in winter 2021 but on par with metrics from 2020.

“This is what we’re going to see [in winter] every year, and a lot of it has to do with the disease itself and the fact that it mutates,” said Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez. The current CDC data shows that BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are the two predominant variants throughout the state, overtaking BA.5. All three are subvariants of the omicron strain

In Berkeley, the prevalence of vaccinations, boosters and availability of COVID-19 treatments are blunting the impact of rising hospitalizations and most illnesses are much less severe than years past, Hernandez said.

About 35% of Berkeley residents (not including UC Berkeley students) have received the second (bivalent) COVID-19 booster. This is among the highest bivalent booster rates in Alameda County. This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that children 6 months and older are also eligible for the bivalent booster.

The same strategies that have been effective in mitigating disease transmission will continue to be effective this winter, and Hernandez said Berkeley is in a better position than seasons past.

Seventy-three people have died of COVID-19 in Berkeley since the beginning of the pandemic, including around 11 since the summer. The city continues to have one of the lowest statewide death rates.

Where to get tested, vaccinated, and boosted in Berkeley

The Curative Berkeley site at Berkeley Adult School in West Berkeley closed on Sunday, along with the company’s other sites in Alameda County. But county-run sites are still operational. And other private operators, like COLOR, will continue running testing sites across the county. Kaiser members will continue to have access to PCR testing and up to four free at-home tests per month that can be mailed or picked up at a local Kaiser pharmacy. 

Locke is urging the community to stay up-to-date with their COVID boosters. The county continues to partner with community clinics and health centers to offer access to vaccinations and boosters. Bivalent boosters that provide greater protection against the trending subvariants are available for anyone 5 and up, at least two months after their last primary series or booster dose.

County health officials stress that vaccines and boosters provide excellent protection against severe illness, which can lead to hospitalizations and death.

“Vaccines are not perfect when it comes to preventing infection, but they do help,” Locke said.

Berkeley has three remaining COVID-19 testing sites.

Optum Mobile Testing: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday

  • Corner of Ward and Park Street, San Pablo Park
  • Standard PCR (walk-up only) and Rapid Antigen testing option available
  • This site offers oral anti-viral COVID treatment for those who qualify based on symptoms and result of test administered onsite
  • Registration, Patient ID and Appointment required online or call (888) 634-1123
  • Please be ready to show Patient ID when checking in – for appointments and walk-ups

Two Optum Mobile Testing Pop-ups: 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

  • Standard PCR (walk-up only) and Rapid Antigen testing option available
  • Tuesday: at Harold Way in downtown Berkeley, between Kittredge & Allston
  • Wednesday: in the parking lot at the corner of San Pablo and Heinz
  • These sites offer oral anti-viral COVID treatment for those who qualify based on symptoms and result of test administered onsite
  • Closed for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. 
  • Registration, Patient ID and Appointment required online or call (888) 634-1123
  • Be ready to show Patient ID when checking in for appointments and walk-ups

For another layer of protection in addition to PCR tests, at-home test kits are available at most pharmacies, and most insurance providers reimburse up to eight kits a month.

BUSD will distribute the kits the first week of January to students and staff for post-winter break testing, and the White House announced Wednesday that it plans to resume a program mailing at-home test kits directly to residences beginning Thursday.

Locke noted that COVID symptoms vary from person to person, and PCR testing is the best way to detect small traces of the virus. Home tests, she said, aren’t as sensitive and are more likely to result in a false negative. If someone is experiencing symptoms and tests negative at home, they are encouraged to test again within 24-48 hours.

“PCRs are sensitive. You can get a PCR test on day one of symptoms, and if you have COVID, it will pick it up,” she said.

COVID-19 treatments are widely available at testing sites

As more people become infected, Locke stresses the importance of testing and seeking treatment. Although last spring there was a shortage of Paxlovid, a medication used to treat COVID, she said there is currently a sufficient amount to treat patients whose underlying conditions put them at higher risk.

All three of Berkeley’s testing sites are “test-to-treat” sites, which means anyone who qualifies based on symptoms and their test results can get oral anti-viral COVID treatment, Paxlovid or Lagevrio, at the Optum clinics.

Primary care doctors also offer COVID-19 treatments.

“You should contact your health care provider if you test positive for COVID and have symptoms,” Locke said. “Because a lot more people are eligible for therapeutics than they realize. A lot of people assume they’re not.”

Paxlovid can only be prescribed within the first five days of COVID symptoms. It is recommended that people who begin experiencing symptoms get a PCR test as soon as possible from a health care provider to confirm a positive result and obtain treatment if needed. This advice is especially urgent for people experiencing symptoms who are also in groups considered high-risk for severe illness.

How to think about masking and testing during the holidays

A Berkeley resident wearing a mask during a rainstorm on Thursday, Dec. 1. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

There’s no broad mask mandate in place currently, but Hernandez strongly recommended masking in indoor settings.

Dr. Sarah Cody, health officer in Santa Clara County, said last week that masks are “extraordinarily difficult” to mandate three years into the pandemic.

Hernandez said she agrees with her colleagues around the Bay Area, and Berkeley defers to state guidelines (based on county data) that don’t require masks even in “high” community levels, but voluntary masking can make a huge difference in preventing transmission.

“I feel like we’ve kind of slipped on the masking, and I think now is the time for us to do that,” Hernandez said. “I think that’s a big one now.”

As the holidays approach and more people head out to family gatherings and indoor activities, Locke said that testing at home (if no symptoms are present) a few days before and on the day of an event is recommended. Small gatherings in well-ventilated places are OK, she said, but meeting outdoors (weather permitting) is better.

Locke said she has only dined indoors a handful of times since the pandemic started. 

“I’ve always opted for outdoors. I personally would not dine indoors right now. And when I go grocery shopping, I put my mask on,” she said. “I’m back to how we approached things a year ago when we were going into the Omicron surge—being really cautious.”

When is wearing a mask required?

Under “medium” community level in Alameda County, masks are required in congregate settings like homeless sheltersemergency shelters, and cooling and heating centers, as well as jails and prisons.

Masks are always required in health care settings and long-term and senior care facilities. AC Transit and BART both lifted their mask mandates this year, and Berkeley Unified School District is recommending but not requiring mask use indoors for both students and staff.

Anyone who has COVID-19 is required to wear a mask for 10 days, and Hernandez said everyone should consider wearing a mask in indoor public spaces. The CDC also recommends that anyone exposed to COVID-19 mask for 10 days afterward.

COVID-19 equity programs are ongoing

The COVID Vaccination site at Ed Roberts Campus set up by the City of Berkeley and aided by both Fema and Americorps, Feb. 25, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley and Carbon Health host a weekly community-based vaccine clinic with 50 to 200 appointments for smaller groups, especially vulnerable residents.

December clinics will be hosted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rosa Parks Elementary School, 920 Allston Way, in Southwest Berkeley. Appointments are available through the Carbon Health website.

The city continues to partner with Capoeira Arts Foundation, the Hoover Neighborhood Association, LifeLong Medical Center, and the Multicultural Institute to offer additional vaccine clinic and COVID-19 education, in addition to programs like door-knocking in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates and distributing at-home test kits.

Berkeley briefly offered a shuttle system for residents who needed rides to vaccination sites, but is no longer running the program due to lack of demand, Hernandez said.

Anyone who needs a home visit for vaccines or medicines can access help by calling 311.

Locke said it’s hard to predict where COVID will be a year from now or whether boosters will be needed yearly, similar to flu shots. 

“We don’t know what the next variant will be. Things could quiet down, but they could not. It’s hard to know. I think we probably wish we had forecasted early on that a two-dose primary series was not going to be enough,” she said. 

“I think people felt a little bit let down when they found out that they were going to have to be boosted again. I don’t want to make a mistake of saying, ‘Yeah, you’re done,’ because we absolutely can’t say that.”

Correction: Berkeley is averaging 18 cases daily, not weekly. Alameda County is also averaging 23 cases daily, not weekly.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...

Azucena Rasilla reports on arts and community for The Oaklandside. She is an East Oakland native and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local, bilingual journalist,...