A line at the Berkeley mass vaccination site in Albany’s Golden Gate Fields, which is being run by Berkeley in partnership with Curative. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

After several weeks of calling doctors, waiting on endless holds and researching the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in California, hundreds of senior Berkeleyans woke up Thursday morning to unexpected news — the Berkeley mass vaccination site was open one day ahead of schedule, and local residents 75 and above could book an appointment the same day.

The city’s first clinic of its size opened up for a soft launch on Feb. 5 in the north parking lot of Golden Gate Fields, which is located within Albany. It’s Alameda County’s North County vaccination site, working in partnership with Curative, Albany, Berkeley and the racetrack, and will be permanently situated in the parking lot off Buchanan Road overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.

The site isn’t going anywhere, but the city says appointments are currently only scheduled until Feb. 8 due to limited vaccine supply. On Feb. 5, 323 people were able to get their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, according to Curative’s Shoshana Gould, partnerships manager for the Bay Area. (Note: After the soft launch, the site is providing both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines based on supply).

Alta Bates Hospital was the first place to receive vaccines in Berkeley in late December. After a series of changes to the vaccination structure statewide, the city last week began vaccinating residents aged 75 and older at its small vaccination clinics. Simultaneously, some healthcare providers began offering vaccines to people aged 65 and above. Both of these age groups are in Phase 1B, but Berkeley is first prioritizing the oldest residents. Another mass vaccination site planned to open at the Oakland Coliseum on Feb. 16 has a goal of vaccinating 6,000 people a day.

The Berkeley mass vaccination site — which is Curative’s first in Northern California — will immensely ramp up the local vaccine rollout to seniors. It’s welcome news to many during a statewide vaccine rollout marred by delays and inequity, but many residents who made it out to the site on Monday said the city notification process needs improvement to serve all residents.

Appointment process needs improvement, residents say

Dozens of residents who spoke to Berkeleyside while in line for the vaccine on Thursday said they heard about appointment availability through friends, phone calls from their children, neighborhood groups and other channels. The city announced the clinic Wednesday and posted an appointment link for Berkeley residents, which quickly filled up.

The clinic was originally supposed to open up for business on Friday, but Matthai Chakko, city spokesperson, said several more appointments were made available to test capacity for the site on Thursday and 2,800 appointments have been offered to date. The city emailed everyone in the eligible group who signed up for city notifications about the extra appointments, according to Chakko.

This system didn’t work for 80-year-old Paul Shalmy, who had made sure to sign up for the notification but doesn’t have Wi-Fi in his home. He had been up late Wednesday night trying to make an appointment for the coming days but found all the slots booked up. In the morning, a friend called him to say appointments had opened up.

He hurried to a place where he could access the internet and was able to lock down an appointment that afternoon.

Chakko said the city made some phone calls to schedule vaccine appointments this week and is in the process of expanding its system to make sure everyone who is eligible gets contacted about their dose. In public forums, every health and city official has been emphasizing that vaccine supplies are limited and the city continues to max out its orders.

Berkeley is still directing residents to contact their primary-care providers, but expanded offerings to 800 more appointments this week. This is partly due to the fact that hospitals are also reporting limited supplies, and turning away members who are eligible and waiting for the vaccine. As of Friday, Berkeley Public Health has administered 3,006 doses of its 4,800-dose allotment.

“It’s really an anticlimax, I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting,” said Steve Halverson, who has been a Kaiser member for decades but wasn’t able to get an appointment for the vaccine through his doctor. He also received a call from a friend on Thursday morning about the new Curative site and came there with his wife, Win, who isn’t yet old enough to be eligible for the vaccine.

They waited in the drive-thru line for nearly an hour before it was his turn, but the process was smooth and simple once they pulled up to the front. Halverson rolled up his sleeve and received his shot in seconds as Win photographed the momentous, but belated, event.

The city is testing out capacity for the vaccination site and will try to expand access

car at vaccination site
An Alameda County public health employee directs a resident to the drive-up registration at the new COVID-19 vaccination site at Golden Gate Fields, Feb. 4, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

Curative is staffing the entire test site and 15 nurses were on the job on Feb. 5, making sure to switch out and take breaks as they worked directly under the sun administering shot after shot to a variety of jubilant, terse and matter-of-fact residents.

Residents who were driving entered through the front gate of the huge capacity parking lot and passed an initial screening to make sure they had an appointment, then moved on to the next area for a closer ID and residency screening to make sure they were eligible for the vaccine. (Shots are only being administered to Alameda County residents.) After receiving their shot, they moved into a 15-to-30-minute monitoring area to make sure they didn’t have any side effects.

Berkeley Fire Capt. Colin Arnold said because the shot is intramuscular, instead of intravenous, there’s less chance for irritations and severe reactions. People who have high-risk factors are monitored for longer, but Arnold said the vaccine has an incredibly low rate of anaphylaxis (or allergic reaction).

The fastest drive-thru vaccinations on Thursday took about five minutes, though some were slightly longer. Some residents who asked to receive the shot in a different arm (facing away from the car door) had to exit the car to sit in a chair, and others took longer to answer questions asked by the nurses.

Afterward, they were given an important card with information about their first dose and scheduling information for their second one.

None of the residents who spoke to Berkeleyside said they were nervous about getting the shot, and there was an even distribution of people who drove themselves to the site or had others drive them.

Transportation activist Darrell Owens pointed out on social media that Golden Gate Fields is extremely difficult to access for anyone who doesn’t have a car or can’t pay for the shuttle.

The city has partnered with Easy Does It transportation service to offer rides to seniors for a $15 fee. (Note: Please do not call or email Easy Does It for vaccine appointments.) More information about health screenings and requirements for the transportation service are available on their website.

Berkeley is also expanding offerings to senior centers and other locations that may be more accessible to residents in the city, including the North Berkeley Senior Center and local partners like LifeLong Medical Care.

After long, hard months of the pandemic, Berkeley mass vaccination site is a sign of progress

Alicia Carter with her dog on the center console of her car at the Berkeley mass vaccination site
Alicia Carter and her dog, Daisy Mae, who watched attentively as Carter received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Beyond the frustration, impatience and hardship of waiting for the vaccine during the most difficult months of the pandemic, there was also a guarded sense of glee among the residents who got their vaccines on Thursday.

There is a 28-day interval between the first and second Moderna vaccine shot, and patients who receive the first dose have to maintain all COVID-19 safeguards during this time period, as well as after receiving their second shot. There is no guarantee that someone who is vaccinated can’t transmit the virus to another person.

But it was still a nice opportunity for many to start fantasizing about the activities and travels they’d once again be able to experience in the years to come. Many said they wanted to see their grandchildren again, and some, like the Halversons, were starting to plan a far-off trip to Hungary.

Alicia Carter was joined by her friend and her little dog Daisy Mae, and said she would start off small and head to the Albany Bulb after getting vaccinated.

Daniel Musicant does a "thumbs up" sign at the Berkeley mass vaccination site after getting his shot
Daniel Musicant, 77, goes by “The Muse” for KALX radio in Berkeley and was excited to get his shot. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

One of the most enthusiastic reactions was from Daniel Musicant, who’s a DJ for KALX radio and found out how to make his appointment after reading Berkeleyside. He said he was “hyped” to be receiving his shot, and threw up a cheery thumbs up after getting the vaccine.

He had signed up for his shot an hour before the appointment, and after watching the entire pandemic unfold from the early days in Wuhan, China, said he couldn’t believe it was finally his turn to receive the vaccine.

“I wasn’t expecting any of this stuff,” said Musicant, who went to Cal in the 1960s and has lived in Berkeley since 1973. “I’m very excited, I’ve been following this thing from day one.”

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...