Berkeley’s COVID-19 fatalities more than doubled in December, going from a total of nine at the beginning of the month to 21 by the end of it, according to Alameda County data.
Of the cases Berkeleyside has been able to learn about, most of the individuals who have died were Black, male, age 80 or older, or some combination of those factors. Most of them had multiple causes of death listed in addition to COVID-19, such as pneumonia, respiratory failure, cardiac or cardiopulmonary arrest and septic shock, among other conditions.
On Wednesday, Berkeley updated the number of the city’s total COVID-19 fatalities to 22, with the cumulative number of lab-confirmed coronavirus cases at 2,430. More than half of the city’s total positive COVID-19 tests have been reported since early December.
Ever since the city’s first COVID-19 death was reported in April 2020, Berkeleyside has been asking city staff for information about who has succumbed to the disease. The city has repeatedly declined to provide even aggregate data about age, race or gender, citing medical privacy laws.
Berkeleyside filed a Public Records Act request in early January to ask the Alameda County coroner’s office for this data. The county replied with a list of 14 Berkeley residents who have died since April 2020 from COVID-19, sharing their names and demographic data, as well as their causes of death.
The city of Berkeley has not been able to explain why it was unable to release this information, which is considered public information by Alameda County, despite repeated inquiries from Berkeleyside about the rationale. The city said staff members are focused on vaccine-related efforts and have not had time to respond to other inquiries. The city said it would aim to provide answers to several Berkeleyside questions by 11 a.m. Wednesday but had provided no information as of publication time.
Berkeleyside is making efforts to speak with the family members of those who have died and will not be publishing their names at this time. But we have compiled aggregate data about the individuals on the list so as to share that information with readers. The dataset is small and, as a result, Berkeleyside cautions readers about drawing definitive conclusions about it. But we wanted to share the information we were able to collect to the extent that it can provide any insights about those who have lost their lives during the pandemic.
The trends seen in Berkeley reflect those observed elsewhere, with minorities and older people overrepresented in the fatality data.
Eighty-six percent of the people from Berkeley who have died from COVID-19, according to coroner’s office data, were from minority communities. Six of the people who died (43%) were Black, three were Hispanic (21%), two were Asian (14%) and one was listed as “other.” Two of the individuals were white. According to Census data, nearly 60% of Berkeley’s total population is white, 21% is Asian, 11% is Hispanic and 8% is black.
People 65 and older make up just 14% of the city’s population, but represent 79% of the people on the coroner’s list. Eight of the 14 people on the coroner’s list (57%) were at least 80 years old: Six were in their 90s and two were in their 80s. Four of the individuals were in their 60s. One man was 71 and one, Berkeley’s first known COVID-19 fatality, which was reported in April 2020, was a 46-year-old Hispanic man.
Nine of the people on the list (64%) were male and five were female. All six of the Black individuals who died were male. Both of the white individuals who died were female.
According to coroner’s office data, one person died from COVID-19 in April, followed by four in July, two each in August and September, four in December and one in January.
A separate data set from Alameda County, which includes the dates of 21 fatalities in Berkeley, has completely different dates listed for the city’s fatalities. Neither Berkeley nor Alameda County staff members have been able to explain the discrepancies. Berkeley has provided no explanation and Alameda County directed Berkeleyside’s questions to Berkeley Public Health.
The coroner’s office did tell Berkeleyside that the city’s Public Health Department would likely have additional names on its list for deaths of Berkeley residents that may have taken place in other jurisdictions.
A high proportion of Berkeley’s fatalities appear to have been linked to facilities for seniors and other vulnerable populations in group living accommodations of some kind. The 87-bed Silverado Berkeley Memory Care Community, at 2235 Sacramento St., has reported having had at least 14 “COVID-19 related” deaths as of this week, according to the most recent state data available.
Berkeleyside initially reported in December about a large outbreak affecting 29 Silverado residents and 12 staff members. As of this week, a total of 58 residents and 32 staff members at the facility had been infected with COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic. Fifteen of the resident cases and 17 of the staff cases remain active, according to the most recent state data available.
A spokesman for Silverado told Berkeleyside on Wednesday that it has no active cases and that the fatalities listed in state reports are not necessarily people who died because of COVID-19. Berkeleyside has asked the state for further clarification and will update this story if it is provided.
Berkeleyside also asked city staff whether those 14 fatalities are included among the deaths listed on the city website but there had been no explanation as of publication time.
There has also been at least one confirmed COVID-19 death each at two of Berkeley’s skilled nursing facilities: Elmwood Care Center at 2829 Shattuck Ave. and Berkeley Pines at 2223 Ashby Ave. (The state masks numbers below 11 for medical privacy reasons so the exact numbers remain unknown.) Berkeleyside will continue to monitor those numbers daily.
Alameda County told Berkeleyside on Wednesday that it has no additional COVID-19 fatality cases from Berkeley beyond the 14 names it has provided.
Update, Jan. 21: The city of Berkeley provided the following statement. It appears below in full.
Our primary goal for public health information has been to notify the public when there is actionable information that can protect public health and save lives. We have publicized incidents, such as measles, when that information can help the public take action.
The data you provided is information that the particular facility has reported to the state, but our records do not show that there were 14 deaths of residents from COVID-19 at the facility in question. You would have to talk to the facility about how they calculated their figures and why they reported their figures in that manner to the state.
The County would be the best source for how they pull data for their dashboard.
The coroner’s office does not deal with living patients and is not under the same obligations to protect their privacy. Our focus on patient privacy has meant that, as a local health jurisdiction, we have sought to avoid placing patients’ families in the public eye because of their health status. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing in the information that helps the public take action. We are also very aware that privacy protection is an important community value in Berkeley.
Given the size of our population, the date of death, aggregate age, gender and race information all lead to exposing individual identity and we have leaned in the direction of patient privacy especially since it does not help anyone take action to keep themselves safer.
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