a graphic of a virus -- a grey and white circle with fuzzy red things coming out of it
There are more than 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, but there are none in Alameda County, according to the city of Berkeley. Photo: CDC/ Alissa Eckert

As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns about a likely pandemic caused by the global spread of COVID-19, a coronavirus disease, Berkeley agencies are assuring residents that there are no confirmed cases in the city or Alameda County.

Both the city of Berkeley and Berkeley Unified say staffers are monitoring local developments closely, and advise residents to take standard health precautions to avoid the spread of the respiratory virus.

The CDC says the immediate health risk of coronavirus to the U.S. public is low.

According to the federal agency, there have been 14 confirmed cases nationwide of COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan, China. An additional newly confirmed case, involving a a Solano County resident who’s being treated at the UC Davis Medical Center, is the first in the nation of unknown origin. There are also 45 cases of people diagnosed elsewhere but repatriated to the U.S. Globally, there have been 82,294 confirmed cases, the vast majority of which are in China, and 2,804 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Twelve of the U.S. cases have been attributed to travel, and two were spread from person to person, according to the CDC. About a month ago, counties in the Bay Area decided together to stop releasing information about “persons under investigation,” because those numbers were causing confusion, according to Berkeley spokespersons. There were previous reports of several of those PUI cases in California, including at Alta Bates Hospital. However, false rumors have also developed, including an allegation spread on NextDoor of confirmed COVID-19 cases at Alta Bates. 

“What the CDC has made clear is that all communities should prepare for a pandemic,” said Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko on Thursday afternoon. “We’re in preparedness mode and developing those plans.”

The city activated its “emergency operations center” in January, with staff from multiple departments collaborating on preparedness measures.

“We’ve been working with healthcare providers and first responders in spreading as wide a net as possible for looking for cases of coronavirus. We’re working with and training our EMS staff on ambulances, and firefighters and police officers,” Chakko said.

In the Bay Area, San Francisco is among the California cities and counties that have declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, even though there are no confirmed cases there. The declaration means staff there have been pulled away from daily tasks to work on prevention efforts, a hotline has been activated with clinicians on call, and the city is better positioned to be reimbursed by the state or county for prevention work, according to the mayor.

“Every city or other jurisdiction has various factors that are prompting the declaration of emergency,” said Chakko in an email earlier Thursday. “We are not at that stage yet, but we are prepared to do so if necessary.”

Later, he said that could change based on a “wide number of possibilities.”

The city is warning Berkeley residents to follow the CDC’s travel guidelines, avoiding trips to high-risk areas. Because COVID-19 is caused by a novel virus, there are no vaccines or medications designed for it, so Chakko said residents should take prevention measures like washing their hands, staying home from work or school if sick, and coughing into elbows. While the flu shot does not prevent coronavirus, Chakko said the flu shares symptoms with COVID-19, so avoiding the flu can also ward off false alarms.

In a message to BUSD staff and families, Superintendent Brent Stephens said the California Department of Public Health recommends taking the following steps for respiratory virus prevention:

  • Wash hands with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Staying away from work, school or other people if you become sick with respiratory symptoms like fever and cough.

Parents should follow the district’s guidelines when determining whether to keep a child home from school, he said. BUSD says kids should stay home if they feel sick enough that they wouldn’t benefit from attending school, if their attendance would put others at significant risk, or if they’ve vomited or had a fever in the last 24 hours.

“As always, the health and safety of our students and staff remain our number one priority, and as such we will continue to communicate information about COVID-19 as the situation develops,” Stephens wrote. (See the full message.)

As coronavirus cases have broken out and rumors have swirled, there have been widespread reports of racist and xenophobic reactions. The LA Times reported on anti-Chinese social media commentary and school bullying incidents. San Francisco Chinatown shop and restaurant owners have experienced negative affects on business since the outbreak, even without any confirmed cases in the city.

Many UC Berkeley students were shocked to see an Instagram post in January from their own health center describing “Xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings” as a “normal reaction” to the coronavirus outbreak. Following the outcry, Cal’s Tang Center deleted the post and apologized for “any misunderstanding it may have caused.”

General fear and anxiety about the virus is prevalent, and concerned Berkeley residents have been snatching up sanitizing products from local drug stores. A worker at Walgreens on Adeline Street said those items — including masks, which the CDC actually advises against wearing as a prevention measure — are long gone from their shelves.

Shortly before publication Thursday evening, the city of Berkeley put out a news release with additional advisories and public health information about coronavirus and local prevention efforts.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...