the front lobby of Silverado Berkeley senior care center
The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent deaths has been devastating for the home, which cares for about 80 elderly residents who all have dementia. Photo: Pete Rosos

Fourteen people who had COVID-19 have died at Silverado memory care home in central Berkeley, making its outbreak the second deadliest at a long-term care facility in Alameda County, according to state data.

On Wednesday afternoon, the outdoor lobby of the care facility at Sacramento Street (at Bancroft Way) had a joyous buzz as residents and staff signed up for their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But the outbreak — and subsequent deaths — has been devastating for the home, which cares for about 80 elderly residents who all have dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s disease.

The first COVID-19 cases were reported after the Thanksgiving holiday and quickly spread to 32 staff members and 58 residents, according to state data and administrators at the home. One of the first deaths, an 86-year-old woman who tested positive for the virus, was confirmed in late December. The Alameda County coroner’s office said her cause of death was not COVID-19, and family members further clarified that she died due to complications with dementia.

Berkeleyside filed a public records request with the Alameda County to find out more information about the people who died of COVID-19 in the city, and she did not appear on the list.

That database was updated at the start of the week to show 14 deaths related to the virus at Silverado Berkeley. Only Marymount Villa Retirement Center in San Leandro has more deaths in the county, with 16 total.

“What’s unique about Silverado Berkeley is that the residents with dementia are with us through their entire journey,” spokesperson for the company Jeff Frum said Wednesday, explaining that it’s normal for most residents to die at the facility, but not in these numbers.

The average number of deaths at all Silverado facilities is two to three a month. The Irvine-based company has 22 homes throughout the country, with the closest one being across the bay in Belmont, and Frum said about 20% of residents are on hospice, or end-of-life care.

Frum pushed back on state data that says all 14 deaths at the facility are due to “COVID-19-related” causes, saying that the residents didn’t necessarily die to due to complications from the virus, but instead because they were already in poor health.

“The vast majority of them were on hospice prior to getting COVID. They got COVID while on hospice, many of them spent their 10 days with COVID, were stable…and just as any end-of-life situation happens with dementia, they take a turn for the worse and they die,” he said, referring to the 10-day window the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a person to be contagious.

Frum added that the data doesn’t always tally with current reality. The facility currently has zero active cases of the virus, but the latest figures from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) show there are 16 cases among staff and 15 among residents. There has been no increase in cases reported by the state throughout this week. The facility has been doing surveillance testing every week and is not currently mandated by the city or county to do more, according to Frum.

CDSS spokesman Jason Montiel clarified that deaths in the database reflect everyone who tested positive for the virus when they died. Care homes are required to report every case and death to the county, which then reports the information to the state. The CDSS did not respond before publication to clarify the discrepancy in active cases.

But regardless of whether they died directly from the virus or not, having roughly 17% of Silverado’s residents die over the course of one month has been crushing, Frum said. Families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic have had to say goodbye through a glass door, with visits and interactions strictly limited for months beforehand.

“We mourn every loss. I can’t overestimate how hard it is on our team.” — Jeff Frum

“We mourn every loss. I can’t overestimate how hard it is on our team,” Frum said. “Unfortunately, when you get into [end-of-life care], every resident you end up moving in ends up passing away on your watch. It’s tough every time you lose a resident.”

Very few residents are hospitalized from illness because the facility is equipped to treat most diseases that appear in conjunction with dementia, Frum said, and the average hospitalization rate is about 3%. This means most of the people who died due to COVID-19 at Silverado Berkeley would likely have died at the facility, and be recorded as Berkeley deaths, but Frum said he could not provide dates or clinical information.

In the last month, Berkeley has jumped from nine deaths to 26. According to information obtained from the coroner’s office, only one of the first 14 deaths in Berkeley happened at Silverado. This information may be updated to reflect the deaths at Silverado.

Most of the people who have died in the city were Black, male, age 80 or older, or some combination of those demographics.

The vaccine should have arrived sooner, but now there’s a ray of hope

The COVID-19 vaccine was approved in late December, and Alta Bates hospital was the first place in Berkeley to receive a shipment and vaccinate its health care workers. Long-term care homes came after skilled nursing facilities on the vaccine priority list, bu Frum thought Silverado would begin receiving the vaccine earlier than now. The roll-out is administered though a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

“It’s been horrible. We’ve been rattling cages to get [the vaccines].” — Jeff Frum

“We have made a tremendous amount of phone calls advocating for these clinics to get scheduled. A week ago none of them were scheduled,” Frum said Wednesday. “It’s been horrible. We’ve been rattling cages to get them.”

A Silverado facility in Pasadena was the first to get “shots in arms” from Pfizer on Tuesday, Frum said, and the Berkeley home was the second in the state to get its doses from CVS Pharmacy on Wednesday.

He said many of the 20% of residents who are on hospice do not want to be vaccinated, but there’s been a high rate of participation among staff members and other residents. Everyone who wanted to be vaccinated got a first dose on Wednesday, and there are two more clinics scheduled for February and March to receive first and second doses.

Speaking after the outbreak first began after Thanksgiving, Frum said the facility had not had any cases prior to the holiday. On Wednesday, he clarified that at least one positive test had appeared among staff during surveillance testing, but it did not spread to any residents and the staff member was able to quarantine and return to work.

The Berkeley facility has one more testing round next week for every resident and staff member, Frum said, and if there are no additional cases, the facility will start accepting new residents again.

He said the facility will maintain its “great success” managing the virus with proper PPE and safety guidelines, as well as the vaccine, and attributed the rapid spread of the virus in recent months to a more contagious strain detected first in the U.K., and now California.

“I can’t tell you how emotional it was, the feeling of hope that we’re gonna smack this virus down,” Frum said of getting vaccines, and future plans for the facility. “It was great. We’re hopeful.”

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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...