As omicron surge swamps testing centers, Berkeley hospitalizations remain low

Amid “phenomenal” rise in cases, Berkeley health official says “we need to find ways to be able to live our lives with COVID.”

People wait in line for COVID-19 tests at the Curative testing site at the Berkeley Adult School on Dec. 21. Credit: Nico Savidge

COVID-19 cases in Berkeley are skyrocketing as the omicron variant gains a foothold in the city, prompting long testing lines and staffing shortages — though officials say the number of hospitalizations remain relatively low.

The extent of the surge locally has been unclear because it has coincided with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, which have delayed the reporting of key data on cases and hospitalizations, and because many people are using at-home tests that aren’t counted in government data.

Berkeley’s COVID-19 dashboard, managed by the the city’s Public Health Officer Unit, warns visitors that the site has not been updated in nearly a week “due to a technical issue.” In the week before Dec. 29, the last day the COVID-19 tracker was updated, Berkeley registered 371 new COVID infections, far surpassing the peak of last year’s winter surge, with new case and test positivity rates indicating the start of a significant spike.

“It’s quite phenomenal that our case numbers have risen this much,” said Lisa Warhuus, the city’s director of health, housing and community services.

The technical issues affecting the tracker, some of which are impacting Alameda County as well, should be resolved soon, Warhuus said.

“Whenever there’s a glitch somewhere in the system, it impacts us,” Warhuus said. “The bottom line is that we know that cases are rapidly rising.”

But Berkeley health officials say the implications of the spiking case counts are quite different in a city where the vast majority of residents now have protection from vaccines. About 91% of Berkeley’s residents are fully vaccinated and 41% have been boosted, both of which help protect against serious illness.

“Our hospitalization numbers [due to COVID-19] remain very low,” said Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer.

“At least three residents” have been hospitalized over the past month, Hernandez said. (In Berkeley, only patients who are hospitalized for COVID-19 are included in hospitalization statistics, not those who test positive after being hospitalized for another illness.)

In the rest of Alameda County, where vaccination rates are slightly lower, 187 patients were hospitalized as of Jan. 3 — double the number a month ago but still low relative to earlier surges. At the peak of the 2020-21 winter surge, 454 people were hospitalized in the county.

City officials say staffing shortages will be one of the most dramatic consequences of the omicron surge, affecting businesses and other organizations.

And while Warhuus and Hernandez say they hope that the scenario, painted by some Bay Area health experts, of an imminent pandemic end game will come to pass, they’re not banking on that prediction for a pandemic that has never failed to deliver curveballs.

“I don’t think in November any of us imagined this, this wall of cases that we’re now experiencing,” Hernandez said. 

For now, amid the largest spike in cases the city has seen to date, they task Berkeleyans with finding a precarious balance: protect the most vulnerable in the community without grinding their own lives to a halt.

“We need to find ways to be able to live our lives with COVID,” Warhuus said.

Crush of demand creates frustration for those seeking tests

For many residents who need to get tested for COVID-19, however, a crush of demand driven by this latest surge has turned that task into a frustrating scavenger hunt.

Many pharmacies have been sold out of at-home rapid test kits. Websites for several local testing sites – including the Curative kiosk at the Berkeley Adult School, Walgreens pharmacies and three sites in the city managed by OptumServe – show no available appointments this week. And some test providers that until recently allowed people to get a test without an appointment, such as Curative and the popular Test the People site in North Oakland, have stopped allowing walk-ups.

Nora Thaler, who needed to get tested for her job with a catering company and couldn’t find an at-home test in stores, was one of several people turned away from the Curative site Tuesday when she tried to get a test without an appointment. She was also told to keep refreshing the location’s website to see if a new batch of appointments became available, or if a slot opened up because of a cancelation.

Her plan to get a test, Thaler said, would be “patience and checking the website.”

Cecilia Knowles of El Cerrito said she managed to book tests for her family at Curative on Tuesday only after they spent Monday scouring eight different websites for appointments and visited the site in person. They learned from a worker that hundreds of appointments for this week would be made available Monday evening, and managed to book a test then; hours later, the slots were filled.

“It was pretty discouraging yesterday,” Knowles said.

A COVID-19 testing site in North Oakland managed by Test the People stopped accepting patients without an appointment amid a crush of demand. Credit: Nico Savidge

Neetu Balram, a spokeswoman for the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, said providers are handling “at least” three times the level of testing demand they’d seen in prior weeks.

“With the confluence of inclement weather, the highly transmissible Omicron variant, and holiday gatherings and closures, people are seeing fewer open appointment times and longer waits at testing sites,” Balram wrote in an email.

If you can’t find a test, the guidance for what to do depends on your vaccination status. Balram said anyone who is experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms, including those who are fully vaccinated and boosted, should isolate as much as they can. If you are unvaccinated, or if you are eligible for a booster shot and haven’t gotten one, you should also isolate if you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms.

Hernandez said Berkeley is working on opening an additional testing site at San Pablo Park that will operate on Sundays and Mondays, in addition to adding more testing capacity at the Curative testing site and the West Berkeley Service Center. Hernandez said the challenge has been “logistical,” rather than a shortage of tests.

“It’s a nationwide challenge right now,” she said. “It’s having staff, having sites.”

Protecting the vulnerable while maintaining normalcy

Increasing case counts and rapidly changing guidelines are reminiscent of earlier stages of the pandemic, but health officials say our lives don’t have to stop for COVID-19 the way they once did, even as we protect the vulnerable in our community.

While vaccines protect most from serious illness, Berkeleyans can prioritize protecting those who are immunocompromised, elderly, and cannot get vaccinated. Herndanez hopes “that people realize that their actions impact the whole community.” 

“Berkeley as a city has always been very conscious and respectful and wanting to meet the needs of our most vulnerable members. And so we should continue to do our due diligence,” she said. 

Much of the guidance is the same as it’s always been, but is especially important with the highly contagious omicron variant. Stay home if you’re sick. Get tested.

But other guidance has shifted:

  • Masks are required again: The city of Berkeley once again requires people to wear masks in all indoor public settings, though people can remove their masks while eating and drinking. 
  • Upgrade your mask: In addition, Hernandez recommends that people upgrade their masks, wearing either KN95s or N95s —which have been shown to better protect against omicron — or double-masking with a cloth mask on top and a surgical mask on the bottom. 
  • Isolation guidelines in flux: As for isolation guidelines, Hernandez says to stay tuned. The CDC just updated its quarantine and isolation guidelines last week, and the California Department of Public Health followed suit with more stringent recommendations. Berkeley has yet to issue its own guidelines, but a local version is likely coming this week. For now, Berkeley health officials recommend you follow the earlier guidelines with longer quarantines.

Throughout the country, staffing shortages brought on by the spread of omicron have already canceled thousands of flights and caused testing delays. Berkeley will be no different.

“We’re going to see a number of businesses and organizations impacted because people are ill and will not be able to come to work,” said Hernandez, who encourages people to be patient in the face of disruptions. “If we’re going to continue in this endeavor as a community, patience over the next month, in terms of service, delivery and resources, is going to be a place we really need to focus.” 

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.
Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.