A vaccination clinic at Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley on Feb. 21, 2021. Credit: Pete Rosos

The highly transmissible omicron variant has brought Berkeley’s daily COVID-19 case counts to an all-time high, falling in step with record-breaking spikes across the country.

On Dec. 29, 160 people tested positive for the coronavirus in Berkeley, more than doubling the previous single-day record of 66 cases during last year’s winter surge. And as of Wednesday, the city’s seven day-average stood at 55.4 cases per 100,000 residents, well above the previous peak of 32.3 cases from February 2021. (Berkeley’s case rate remains far below California’s average, which currently stands at 88.7 cases per 100,000.)

Berkeley’s test positivity rate — the seven-day average reached 7.4% on Jan. 4 — is also now the highest of the pandemic. 

These figures underestimate the actual number of COVID-19 cases in the city since at-home tests are not included in the official tally and many testing sites have been booked, making it difficult for some to access testing.

While the variant poses less risk of severe illness, especially among the vaccinated, the speed of its spread is already upending daily life, exacerbating staffing shortages, and could ultimately land more patients in the hospital.  

So far, hospitalizations in Berkeley remain low — there have been five new patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 since Dec. 1 — but in the rest of Alameda County they have doubled in the last month and are expected to keep rising.

The city of Berkeley’s COVID-19 dashboard shows what health officer Lisa Hernandez called a “wall of cases.” Credit: City of Berkeley

The surge has prompted Mayor Jesse Arreguín to advise residents to avoid high-risk activities during what many public health experts anticipate will be a large but relatively brief omicron surge. “We have to all exercise caution and really be careful over these next two weeks,” Arreguín said in an interview Wednesday. 

He did not call for a halt to in-person events or indoor dining, saying the question of whether to reimpose those restrictions “is challenging, because it has a huge impact on our local economy, and we don’t want to make those decisions lightly.”

Vaccines and boosters largely protect against severe illness caused by the virus, but city health officials say residents still need to “do their due diligence” to prevent infections in the most vulnerable. 

While Berkeley health officials have said that cases were spiking, the extent of the omicron surge had been unclear. For a week, the city dashboard, managed by the Public Health Officer Unit, was down “due to a technical issue.” The data tracker was updated Wednesday afternoon with current case data.

Berkeley Health Officer Lisa Hernandez said the city has had the case data internally, but was waiting for a glitch to be resolved with its vaccination data, which comes from Alameda County, to update the dashboard. On Wednesday, when a week had passed and the county still had not resolved the issue, the city decided to update the case data, Hernandez said.

As many residents struggle to book COVID-19 test appointments or find at-home tests, Arreguín said he wants Berkeley to look into procuring rapid tests and higher-quality masks for vulnerable populations. He also said the city hopes to partner with state and county officials to launch a new vaccination site to handle the demand for booster shots, which provide more protection from the omicron variant. The city is planning to open an additional testing site and add more capacity to existing sites.

“We are in a strong position to weather this,” Arreguín said, because more than 90% of Berkeley residents have received at least the initial course of a COVID-19 vaccine. “But we can’t just go about our daily lives thinking that the way we’ve been operating before this is going to work.”

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...