the front of Alta bats hospital in berkeley, which will be the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine
Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, Alta Bates campus at 2450 Ashby Ave.: Photo Natalie Orenstein

Doctors, nurses and staff at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center will be the first people in Berkeley to get Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine once it’s approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to happen on Friday evening, according to Berkeley officials.

Berkeley, which has its own health department, has submitted its order and the hospital will receive 975 doses of the vaccine upon its approval, said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. He said all of these doses will go to Alta Bates hospital, which is operated by Sutter Health, and the following round that is expected to arrive toward the end of December will go to residents and staff at the city’s six skilled nursing facilities.

Frontline health care workers who are treating COVID-19 patients and high-risk groups will be prioritized, as per state guidelines. The vaccine will be free and voluntary, according to Sutter spokesperson Monique Binkley Smith.

“Sutter has assembled an internal task force of experts to work with state and local public health officials. We plan for a staged approach to vaccine distribution across our integrated network, as manufacturing and distribution scales to meet vaccination needs across the U.S.,” Smith said in a statement.

alta bates berkeley covid-19 vaccine distribution
Berkeley’s first set of doses is based on population, and all of it will go to Alta Bates. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Chakko said the hospital will be in charge of notifying the employees who will receive the vaccine, handling its deployment and other logistics. The Alta Bates workers administering the vaccine will likely be among the first group to receive it, as well, he said.

The exact date for when the vaccine will be available locally isn’t available yet because it’s still moving through stages of federal approval, but Chakko said the first phase is expected to be administered by the end of the year. After Alta Bates, skilled nursing facilities will get the vaccine through a federal partnership with Walgreens and CVS under “Operation Warp Speed.” The city worked with each facility to make sure they’re enrolled in the program.

There are multiple companies manufacturing the vaccine, with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, and Moderna being the two frontrunners. The Alta Bates healthcare workers who receive the Pfizer vaccine will have to get their second dose from the same company, Chakko said, and they cannot “mix and match.”

After their first dose, they will have to get a second dose in about 21 days, which Berkeley has already ordered. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective and starts working about two weeks after the first shot, according to the FDA.

Amid a dangerous surge of cases, the COVID-19 vaccine will not immediately change daily life

This is the very first stage of vaccine deployment in Berkeley, and it will take several more months until the general public gets access to the vaccine based on tiers of risk laid out by the state and federal government. This begins with essential workers, older residents and people with underlying conditions. The vaccine will eventually make its way to the general public.

The federal government hasn’t yet released its guidelines on whether people who already had COVID-19 should receive the vaccine, but health experts have said it will be necessary because natural immunity does not have a guaranteed timeline.

The city and county are aligning completely with the state’s process, according to Chakko.

“This is 975 people who work [in Berkeley], and care for people who are here, and are vulnerable to the virus by caring for people here with the virus,” Chakko said regarding the limited first batch of vaccines. “It’s critical that they get it, and we’re following state and federal guidelines and helping them get it first.”

Chakko said the vaccine is a “glimmer of hope,” but now is the most dangerous time to relax. With the region already in an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, there could be deadly consequences if the community doesn’t continue to social distance, wear masks and avoid high-risk activities like indoor gatherings. In Berkeley, there have been 1,434 cases to date and nine deaths.

Beginning Monday, the city and most Bay Area regions entered a new shelter-in-place order in response to the most rapid increase of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, and ICUs beginning to see an increased load of patients throughout the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom had announced on Dec. 3 that regions would have to implement the orders if they hit 15% capacity, but Bay Area counties decided to start even sooner.

The Bay Area ICU capacity was at 25.4% capacity when Newsom’s announcement first came down. Now, it’s at 16.7% (scroll over the Bay Area to see in the map above), with health officials saying we may not yet be experiencing the full impact of the Thanksgiving holiday and increased gatherings.

Only 2% of all beds at Alta Bates are being used by COVID-19 patients, according to a tool from NPR based on new federal data, and Alameda County capacity is at 32.7%. But these numbers are not representative of the entire region, which relies on mutual aid to respond to traumatic, overwhelming events like the pandemic.

At nearby Kaiser Foundation hospital in San Leandro, for example, COVID-19 patients are taking up 32% of hospital beds — which is over the 20% threshold that represents “extreme stress” for a hospital. Statewide, there are 1,450 ICU beds left, or 9% availability.

“These figures — they’re terrifying,” Chakko said. “The most urgent things to protect both the workers in hospitals as well as our communities still have to do with the most basic habits and our current stay-at-home order…that’s going to provide the greatest protection now, and for some time to come.”

Update, Dec. 12: The FDA approved the vaccine on Friday, according to the New York Times, and it will be shipped right away.

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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...