COVID-19 vaccines in Berkeley are finally plentiful and available to everyone, but inequities in the vaccine rollout since last December mean some ZIP codes are almost 100% vaccinated while other residents haven’t accessed the vaccine as quickly.

Data from the state shows that Berkeley has one of the most vaccinated neighborhoods in the entire Bay Area, with 94707 in North Berkeley having almost 80% of its residents (16 and above) fully vaccinated as of May 4, and the remaining 20% having received one dose. The neighboring 94708 also has over 70% fully vaccinated and about 20% with their first dose.

Areas in South, Southwest and West Berkeley with ZIP codes 94703, 94702 and 94710 are still on track to be about 70% fully vaccinated in the weeks to come, which is in line with the county’s average, but still well behind the city’s most vaccinated neighborhoods — which are now nearing 100%.

The state doesn’t have data available for the UC Berkeley campus, but the university says 5,240 members of its community are now fully vaccinated. That includes anyone with a Cal affiliation, including professors, employees and students.

The area immediately surrounding the Cal campus has a very low 26% vaccination rate, but many of the people who live in the area may be living elsewhere during remote learning and gotten their vaccines in other jurisdictions.

Income is an indicator of high COVID-19 vaccinated ZIP codes

The most vaccinated ZIPs match up with neighborhoods that have wealthier, whiter residents, as well as numerous other factors influencing the vaccine rollout, such as age. After essential workers in hospitals began receiving the vaccine in December, shots were initially offered to people who were 65 and older, then 50 and older and finally those 16 and above in mid-April.

The ZIP codes that are most vaccinated do not align, however, with Berkeley neighborhoods where COVID-19 case rates were highest, which included areas around Cal and West Berkeley. It’s a pattern that’s being seen throughout the Bay Area’s wealthiest communities, like Piedmont and Atherton, according to UC San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. Kim Rhoads, who has been spearheading community clinics in the East Bay with Umoja Health to offer vaccines to groups who may be overlooked in the rollout.

Berkeley’s most vaccinated ZIP codes, 94707, 94708 and 94705, respectively have the three highest average incomes in the city — $197,316, $257,594 and $192,122, according to data CalMatters compiled from the Franchise Tax Board in 2018.

“(Income data) tells a very compelling story, rather than just, ‘Black and brown people were vaccine hesitant’ — I just hate that term,” Rhoads said, explaining that “vaccine hesitancy” shames people for reacting appropriately to generations of systemic racism — including the Tuskegee syphilis experiment — without applying the same frame to people who are politically against vaccines.

“The three diseases that the CDC was founded on were syphilis, (tuberculosis) and malaria, it’s in the roots of the soil,” Rhoads said. “Public health infrastructure in this country is based on the exploitation of people … there’s this idea that, ‘yeah, there was Tuskegee, and then it was over,’ but it actually didn’t end.”

A mobile vaccination clinic at Ed Roberts Campus in March allowed walkup vaccines before they became widely available in May to prioritize members of the South Berkeley community, many of whom are people of color. Credit: Pete Rosos

In response to these conditions, and COVID-19 disproportionately impacting people of color in Berkeley, city health officials headed by Dr. Lisa Warhuus, director of Berkeley health, housing & community services, have been trying grassroots methods to get the vaccine out to communities of color. This includes partnering with Black churches and religious organizations and arranging mobile clinics with Alameda County to serve people in their neighborhoods.

“We’re proud on the one hand, of course, that we do have so many vaccinated in certain parts of our community,” Warhuus said, describing those groups as people who also have more access to cars, computers and technology, which were crucial in earlier days of the vaccine rollout. “But as hard as the last four, five months have been, I feel like public health work really begins now.”

This will include the phasing out of the Golden Gate Fields mass vaccination site, which was never intended to last forever, Warhuus said, and shifting it into a smaller, “consistent” location where people can come to get their vaccines. Berkeley will also be formalizing a process later this week to allow community organizations to partner with the city for vaccine outreach and inoculations.

In preparation for the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration OK’ing the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 12 (which happened on Monday), the Berkeley Public Health division will also get to work on a campaign to vaccinate children by the end of the school year, Warhuus added.

How far away is Berkeley from reaching “herd immunity” against COVID-19?

“Herd immunity” is achieved when a certain amount of people are inoculated against a virus and it has no where to go, so it dies out. Each virus demands a different inoculation rate for a community to be immune, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates the number is 70-85% for COVID-19.

That number could be within reach for Berkeley, especially if a significant chunk of the population — 40,000 Cal students — are required to have the vaccine to resume school in person in the fall. But the city is certainly not an island, as health officials repeated time and time again during the worst months of the pandemic last winter.

Rhoads doesn’t think group immunity will defeat COVID-19 in the Bay Area, and anticipates another surge in the summer fueled by relaxed COVID-19 restrictions and a drop-off of both COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. Even though 73% of Alameda County has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and much of the Bay Area is at or above 60% vaccinated, the pandemic will continue to operate on a national and global scale.

“If only 50% of people are vaccinated, you still have 50% where COVID-19 can go,” Rhoads said.

But she’s still working on offering the vaccine to as many people as possible and giving them the option to protect their communities. This includes saying, “If you’re not going to get vaccinated, please encourage other people to get vaccinated, because that will protect you as well,” and building relationships, instead of just showing up to a community and offering shots.

“People like me who work in public health will view (getting vaccinated) as a public health responsibility to keep everyone safe … but it is a very personal choice whether or not you get vaccinated,” Warhuus said. “In time, people may change their mind, but if you don’t approach them with respect and frankly empathy for what people of color have been through in this country, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

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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...