Dr. Lisa Hernandez discusses vaccine distribution in Berkeley during a virtual town hall on Jan. 4, 2021. with a background that says "Save Lives, Stay Home."
Dr. Lisa Hernandez discusses vaccine distribution in Berkeley during a virtual town hall on Jan. 4, 2021.

The Berkeley Public Health Department has vaccinated nearly 500 frontline healthcare workers since the COVID-19 vaccine was approved in December, and hundreds more doses are in the process of being distributed at local hospitals and senior care facilities.

The city has received 1,100 doses of the Moderna vaccine to date in addition to the 975 Pfizer doses Alta Bates received in December, according to Lisa Warhuus, director of the health, housing and community services (HHCS) department. She described the rollout as an “unprecedented” work in progress during Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s first virtual town hall of the year on Monday evening.

Of the Moderna vaccine, Warhuus said 494 doses have been given to people in the first two tiers in Phase 1A of California’s vaccination plan, which includes paramedics, emergency medical technicians, firefighters who respond to 911 calls, public health field staff, and home health care workers.

The third and last tier of Phase 1A includes speciality clinics, lab workers, dentists and pharmacy staff, who are in line to receive the vaccine soon in Berkeley. There will be another, 3-day clinic this week to administer more of the Moderna vaccine, according to Warhuus.

“We are rapidly using up all the vaccine that we are receiving and we are committed to not wasting a drop,” Warhuus said, referring to reports that hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines in the state have sat in warehouses with the risk of going bad, whereas other vials have found to be overfilled. “In fact, in a few instances, we were able to squeeze a little bit extra out of those vials, as you may have heard on the news.”

With Gov. Newsom sounding the alarm this week that California is lagging behind other states in vaccine rollout, Warhuus assured residents that while CDC rules around the vaccine rollout can change rapidly, the federal agency is offering strong support and Berkeley workers are competent and efficient in handling the vaccine.

A spokesperson for Sutter, which owns Alta Bates, couldn’t confirm the number of vaccines administered at the Berkeley hospital on Tuesday and directed the inquiry to the City of Berkeley, which directed the inquiry back to Alta Bates.

Senior care facilities will begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine this week

Vaccines at skilled nursing and long-term care facilities in Berkeley are being administered through a federal partnership with Walgreens and CVS pharmacies. The five SNFs in the city are Elmwood, Chaparral, Kyakameena, Berkeley Pines and Ashby Care Center. Silverado is the only long-term care facility. 

Warhuus said Berkeley has received word from the state that three facilities will begin receiving vaccines this week. She did not specify which facilities are receiving the vaccine first but said the state notifies the city a few days in advance. Additional locations will likely receive the vaccine soon.

Elmwood, Berkeley Pines and Silverado have reported deaths due to COVID-19, and both Elmwood and Silverado are currently experiencing outbreaks. There were 28 cases among residents and 24 among staff at Silverado as of Jan. 3, according to a state database, as well as active cases at Elmwood. (Note: The state data link has been updated with the latest numbers as of Jan. 8)

Silverado has had a total of 39 cases among residents and 26 among staff, all of which happened after the Thanksgiving holiday, according to a facility administrator. Two people who tested positive for COVID-19 at Silverado died in late December, according to family, but the Alameda County coroner’s office said Tuesday that at least one of those people died of natural causes, and not the virus.

Due to privacy laws, the SNF database currently lists Elmwood’s active cases as “less than 11,” but says there have been 30 total cases at the facility since March. This is an increase of two cases from the beginning of the week.

The vaccines come amid an ongoing surge, which New Year’s Eve gatherings may have made worse

City officials’ hopeful discussion around vaccine distribution came with somber, repeated warnings that the Bay Area and California are experiencing their worst-ever period of the virus spread throughout the pandemic.

Dr. Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health director, said there is expected to be a “surge on top of a surge” from New Year’s Eve celebrations, following surges from Christmas and Thanksgiving. Berkeley recently saw its death toll from the virus increase by three people, all of whom were over the age of 60, Hernandez said Monday. This makes 12 deaths to COVID-19 in the city since the pandemic began.

Berkeley remains under strict stay-at-home orders, with most recreational activities like outdoor dining closed, and nearby cities like San Francisco choosing on their own to extend the state’s restrictions indefinitely.

There is also mounting concern about a COVID-19 mutation first detected in the United Kingdom, which is believed to be more contagious but not more deadly. Hernandez said the variant is likely already circulating in the Bay Area, even if it hasn’t been detected. It has already been found in Southern California. 

During an ongoing surge of cases in California, the more contagious variant could infect more people, and therefore also lead to a greater number of deaths. Hernandez said, however, that the current vaccine is likely still effective against the mutation.

Similar to previous months, she said cases have been concentrated at worksite outbreaks and social gatherings. While keeping health privacy laws in mind, the city is working on releasing new data about where and how the virus is spreading locally, she added. It has spread in social settings at worksites like break rooms, as well as in worksite-congregate living combinations like the Golden Gate Fields race track outbreak that infected over 300 people, and resulted in at least one death. 

In the intermittent time period when the virus continues to spread, but most people are not vaccinated, Berkeley officials said it’s critical to continue social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and maintaining hand washing.

The next phase of the vaccine rollout, 1B, will include members of the public who are 75 and older. Newsom on Monday expanded the second tier of 1B to include all residents who are 65 and older, when it previously only included those in the age group who have a health condition or disability.

Berkeley has to receive authorization from the state before they can begin this phase, and Hernandez said during the town hall that residents will likely receive the vaccine from their own doctors or healthcare providers.

The California Department of Public Health has offered broad estimates that vaccines for the general public could be available in late spring or early summer, but this will be entirely dependent on the efficiency of the first few phases of vaccine distribution.

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...