Before the outbreak of COVID-19, residents at Chapparal House would gather regularly for group activities. A new order from Berkeley’s public health officer forbids communal gatherings. Photo: Chapparal House

Anyone working in or visiting a skilled nursing home or long-term care facility in Berkeley will have to wear a mask at all times and have their temperature taken before they enter, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, the city’s public health officer, ordered Thursday.

People living at any of the six such facilities in Berkeley must also wear face masks — preferably surgical rather than cloth — when they leave their rooms, according to the order. They must also remain 6 feet apart from others at all times.

Hernandez also ordered communal dining and group activities to be stopped.

“The close contact of people living and working in congregate living settings make them more susceptible to COVID-19 infection, which can spread easily such as through talking in close proximity,” Hernandez said in an announcement of the order on the city’s website. “The age or underlying health conditions of these facilities’ residents further increase their risk of serious illness or death.”

Nursing homes have become epicenters for COVID-19 deaths around the country, although there have not been any deaths at the ones in Berkeley. Elsewhere, the age and underlying health conditions of older people in group settings, plus the proximity of their living quarters, have been prime breeding grounds for the spread of the virus. In addition, many health workers have been overworked and not provided with adequate personal protective gear in some facilities.

The first major U.S. outbreak of the novel coronavirus happened in a nursing facility in Kirkland, Washington. It killed at least 37 people. The Alameda County district attorney’s office is investigating the Gateway Rehabilitation and Care Center in Hayward, where at least 13 people have died and another 67 people, including staff, have gotten COVID-19, according to the Mercury News. The New York Times estimates that 69,000 people living in or connected to nursing homes have died of the virus.

Berkeley’s public health division has a longstanding relationship with the city’s senior and long-term care facilities and has been working even more closely with them since the outbreak of the pandemic, said Hernandez.

“That includes assessing supply needs, overall readiness, and providing supplies including N-95s, hand sanitizer, goggles, gloves, and surgical masks to facilities that need them,” the city’s statement reads.

Berkeley’s order includes requirements for when the facilities must notify hospitals and emergency medical services about potential exposure. It also limits the number of facilities at which health care workers can work.

If an outbreak does occur, Berkeley has “a specially trained response team is ready to provide support and assist with on-site testing if needed,” according to the city.

“An EOC (emergency operations center) task force consisting of staff from Fire EMS, Public Health Preparedness, and Communicable Disease divisions has been working closely with nursing facilities to assess their needs, help them prepare, and provide supplies and PPE when needed,” Dee Williams-Ridley, the city manager, said in an email Thursday evening. “Should an outbreak occur at one of these locations, we have a trained response team ready to support them.”

The long-term care facilities in Berkeley have already been taking extra steps to protect their residents. Since early March, right after the first COVID-19 case was reported in Berkeley but before the shelter-in-place order was in effect, the facilities had installed hand sanitizers around senior facilities and were disinfecting common areas including elevator buttons and door handles frequently. The facilities had asked friends and family members who were sick to stay away and to communicate through Skype or other electronic means.

The specifics of Hernandez’s order requires the facilities to:

  • Take the temperature and check symptoms of staff, contractors, and visitors before they go inside a facility. “Anyone with a temperature over 100° F or who reports experiencing COVID-19 symptoms in the past 7 days should not be permitted inside.”
  • Have staff and visitors where surgical masks inside. Residents must wear them too when they are outside their rooms. “Clean, dry cloth masks may be used only if surgical masks are not available, and should be laundered before reuse.”
  • Group activities and dining together in a large dining room must stop. Residents must stay six feet away from others when they leave their rooms.

The rules are similar to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

“While we have not yet had a lab-confirmed COVID-19 positive case in a skilled nursing facility or other residential facility, the nature of this virus makes such a case inevitable,” said Hernandez. “Outbreaks across the nation increase the urgency for decisive action. These steps will reduce risk to residents in facilities where the virus can spread rapidly and with severe consequences.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...