Mobile COVID Testing bus that's blue and orange, set up while COVID-19 vaccine distribution is ongoing throughout the city
LHI, a state site, is running pop-up COVID-19 testing sites in Berkeley. The bus was parked on Allston Way between MLK and Milvia on Tuesday. Photo: Pete Rosos

Update, Jan. 14.: Kaiser has made vaccine appointments available through the My Doctor Online phone line, 866-454-8855. While some have been able to make an appointment as early as next week, others say the line is overwhelmed and hold times are unmanageable.

Original story: All Berkeleyans who are 65 and older will soon be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new guidelines announced Wednesday, but delays and confusion at every level of the process are calling into question when the majority of older residents in the city will receive their dose.

Phase 1A of the vaccine rollout began immediately after the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved in mid-December. Alta Bates initially got 975 Pfizer doses, designated for its frontline workers, and the city of Berkeley received 1,100 Moderna doses for tiers two and three of Phase 1A (which still need to be completed before the city can move on to older residents). UC Berkeley is also vaccinating its healthcare workers.

Currently, the city has administered 797 of its 1,100 doses to public health employees, firefighters, EMTs, police officers, dentists, home care nurses and others. City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said it expects to use up the remaining doses by the end of the week.

Neither the city or Sutter Health, which owns Alta Bates, have confirmed the number of vaccines administered at the hospital’s facilities, but a Sutter employee who received the vaccine (and heard the information indirectly) told Berkeleyside that the number is around 3,000 between its hospitals in Berkeley and Oakland.

Appointments for residents who are 65 and older are supposed to happen through individual healthcare providers like Sutter, Kaiser and others, but if the rollout for healthcare workers is any indication, it may be difficult for everyone who is eligible to make an appointment due to high demand, overburdened systems and limited supplies.

The Governor’s office has not released any specific plans about mass vaccination sites like those opened in New York City and Los Angeles, and Chakko said Berkeley was still awaiting formal notice from the state of the broadened vaccine tier 1B (which includes residents 65 and above) as of Wednesday afternoon.

The state has not told Berkeley when the city will get its next shipment of vaccines, said Chakko. Whatever arrives will first go to the remaining healthcare workers who remain to be vaccinated.

Doses for older residents will also rely on how much vaccine pharmaceutical companies are able to produce, and the amount purchased by the federal government.

Some Berkeley health care workers had to request the COVID-19 vaccine, instead of being notified

As jubilant vaccination selfies began to appear on social media in the late weeks of December, some healthcare workers were raising concerns over poor communication and unfair prioritization.

Resident physicians at Stanford University Hospital protested the initial roll-out of the vaccine, saying they had been unfairly excluded from the first batch despite being on the frontlines of the university hospital’s COVID-19 response. The error was blamed on an algorithm, and the residents ultimately were vaccinated.

In Berkeley, health care workers who don’t work at Alta Bates had to email the city to arrange to be vaccinated.

Some heard through word-of-mouth that they had to reach out to the city to make an appointment, instead of being notified directly that they were part of the eligible group, and described outreach as nonexistent.

Amanda Kessner, a private practice midwife with East Bay Midwives, emailed the city according to its process but had to follow up multiple times to make sure she got her appointment. Her colleagues had similar experiences and directed her to be insistent because city workers were inundated with appointment requests.

“Private practice midwives are not at the top of anyone’s list,” Kessner said, explaining that she had to advocate for herself throughout. “We’re a fairly marginalized group in healthcare.”

When she did arrive for her vaccination appointment, she noticed that many stalls at her testing site (the locations of which are being kept confidential by the city) were completely unoccupied throughout her 25-minute visit. A colleague who visited the site later the same day found it full, but it seemed to Kessner to demonstrate a lack of urgency and consistency.

Berkeley leaders have assured residents in recent weeks that “not a single drop” is being wasted despite reports that California is leaving vaccine doses in warehouses, requiring a broken freezer to enable mass vaccinations and heavily lagging behind other states.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines Tuesday to allow all residents 65 and above to be prioritized within Phase 1B, and Newsom followed suit, but broader guidelines are only the first step to making sure the vaccine reaches the people who need it.

How can eligible residents sign up to receive the vaccine?

Currently, there is no method for residents who are not frontline workers to make appointments with their health care providers to get the vaccine, but Alameda County is offering online forms for residents, employers and healthcare workers to to sign up for eligibility notification.

Berkeley is still waiting for formal state communication and most hospital systems have not updated their information portals to reflect the latest change. Newsom has said more information will become available next week.

woman in front of blue and orange Mobile COVID Testing bus in cheetah print mask. The bus was set up while COVID-19 vaccine distribution is ongoing throughout the city
Elizabeth Jacob after receiving her COVID-19 test at the LHI-run mobile testing bus parked along Allston Way in Downtown Berkeley. This is Jacob’s third test since the onset of the pandemic. Photo: Pete Rosos

Residents at skilled nursing and long-term care facilities (many of whom are over 65) began receiving the vaccine through a federal partnership with Walgreens and CVS pharmacies last week, and this process is largely separate from the city’s rollout.

According to U.S. Census data, 14.3% of Berkeley residents are over the age of 65, the same percentage as Alameda County overall. This amounts to more than 17,000 people who are curious to find out when they can get vaccinated.

Many areas in the county, like Union City, Castro Valley, Pleasanton, San Leandro, Piedmont and Fairview, have higher percentages of older residents than Berkeley, but lower overall populations. Oakland has only 13.1% of residents over 65, but that means nearly 57,000 residents in the age group for the large city.

The state has allocated vaccines to Alameda County over the course of the last two months, and the county has then distributed the vaccine in “buckets” to each city. The percentage or population of older residents will be relevant to how many additional doses Berkeley receives.

Once the city is able to vaccinate all of its healthcare workers in Phase 1A, Berkeley can move on to vaccinating those who are 65 and above. Also in this group will be people at risk of exposure in education and childcare, emergency services, food and agriculture.

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...