Omicron surge still rising in Berkeley; expected to peak by end of January

Cases in Berkeley have shot up by nearly 4,000 since the last week of December, with over 1,000 of those cases recorded since Friday.

People sit and wait for at least 15 minutes after receiving COVID-19 vaccine in Berkeley
A vaccination site at the Ed Roberts Campus. File photo: Pete Rosos

The omicron variant continues to climb in Berkeley and is expected to rise even higher, but local health officials are hopeful that cases will spike and begin to drop by the end of January.

Cases in Berkeley have shot up by nearly 4,000 since the last week of December, with over 1,000 of those cases recorded since Friday, according to Berkeley health department data.

The omicron wave has now pushed COVID-19 case numbers in the city to levels five times higher than during the winter surge in January 2021, when the highest daily total recorded was 67 cases. That daily record has been surpassed nearly every day since the last week of December in Berkeley, and the highest recent daily jump was nearly 300 cases.

(The numbers on the city and county dashboards are recorded with a one-week lag time, so while it may appear that cases have dropped off, they just haven’t been added to the count yet. As of Friday, the county has only reported cases up until Jan. 11, while Berkeley has numbers updated to Jan. 18.)

Despite the surge, hospitalizations have not seen a dramatic increase in Berkeley due to the large population of people in the city who are vaccinated. About 98% of hospitalizations in the city have been for unvaccinated patients.

In Alameda County, where vaccination rates are slightly lower than in Berkeley, hospitalization numbers this week reached the same level as the 2020-21 winter surge, with 444 people hospitalized as of Wednesday (compared with 454 people last year).

Dr. Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer, said cases in Berkeley will likely increase over the next few weeks, with a downturn projected at the end of the month.

“What we’re seeing in terms of our case count – it’s an undercount,” Hernandez explained. “People are testing outside of our traditional health system, which includes our at-home test. I’m so glad we have that option and the availability is increasing, but those positives are not captured in our positive test rate.”

The positive test rate has increased from around 5% last Friday to about 8% as of Thursday. Testing has also increased dramatically in Berkeley and throughout the region since the surge began in late December.

Local vaccination rates currently sit at 98% with at least one dose, 91% fully vaccinated and about 50% of people with boosters. These numbers will increase after UC Berkeley’s numbers are factored in, Hernandez said.

The way out of the surge will continue to be equitably distributed vaccinations and boosters, along with mitigation measures like proper masking, hand washing and social distancing, according to local doctors and health experts. Beyond that, Hernandez said the latest surge has shown the region that the virus is ever-changing, and local businesses and municipalities will have to put contingency measures in place for a sick workforce, and other impacts.

“We thought in November that we were over the hardest days, and then we got this surge. It impacted us in different ways [than the first surge],” Hernandez said. “While our hospitalization numbers are relatively low, we know that this impacted hospital staffing, grocery store staffing. … It impacted every industry because of how infectious it was.”

UC Berkeley is currently beginning its semester with two weeks of remote courses in response to a large surge of cases on campus, though not all students have returned in person yet.

“There has been a surge in positive COVID-19 cases on campus over the last two weeks, as expected,” administrators told the Cal community in a campus-wide alert Tuesday. “With the high transmissibility of the omicron variant and the return of more students and staff to campus, we anticipate that the number will continue to increase through January.”

For full COVID-19 numbers, updated weekly, see Berkeleyside’s numbers page.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's homelessness and housing reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.