City of Berkeley urges indoor masking as COVID-19 cases spike again

Berkeley’s case rate is higher than it’s been at any point in the pandemic other than the omicron surge. Hospitalizations remain low.

CA-Reopening-Berkeley
Devin McDonald, co-owner of Mr. Mopps’ Children’s Books and Toys, has kept a requirement that customers wear masks in the store since the city mandate was lifted in February. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

COVID-19 cases are rising again in Berkeley, fueled by contagious Omicron subvariants. As the city faces its second-largest surge of the pandemic, the city’s health department is recommending that residents once again wear masks in indoor public places.

The case rate per 100,000 residents (56.2) and the average number of positive COVID-19 cases recorded over the last seven days (62 per day) are the highest they’ve been throughout the pandemic other than during the omicron surge. Case rates have risen in the Bay Area as a whole, which has higher case rates than anywhere else in California.

And Berkeley’s reported totals are likely an undercount since many people are also using at-home test kits that aren’t recorded in the official numbers. The levels of virus in Alameda County’s wastewater, a powerful predictive tool, are spiking, too.

Hospitalizations in Berkeley and Alameda County remain low. On Wednesday, there were 64 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alameda County, 5 of them in intensive care. But Berkeley’s health officer, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, said she expected rates of hospitalization to rise, as they did during other surges.

“Quite honestly, we were hoping that that that it would rise and fall after spring break,” Hernandez said. “But we’re still continuing to see cases be extremely elevated.”

Hernandez, along with 11 other Bay Area health officials, recommended Friday that residents begin taking additional precautions against the virus, including wearing N95, KN95 or cloth masks over surgical masks as well as testing before or after large gatherings, especially if you will come in contact with people who are more vulnerable to the virus.

The wastewater data collected for Alameda County by the state of California shows significantly elevated rates of COVID-19. Credit: CDPH

Berkeley’s health department stopped short of requiring that residents mask indoors. The city ended its mask mandate on Feb. 16, and when asked what conditions might lead to the mandate being reinstated, Hernandez replied that she hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

She said individual businesses can make that call themselves, and that her department supports businesses that want to require masking.

When asked whether Berkeleyans should avoid gathering indoors altogether, Hernandez said that residents should make “an individual calculation” based on risk levels and the health risks posed to friends and family members, particularly the elderly or medically vulnerable.

She also advised that, though the city has high rates of vaccination (93%) and boosters (80% have gotten at least one), residents who have not yet gotten the jabs should do so, in order to protect from risk of serious illness.

BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens also sent a message to the community that the district was “experiencing elevated case levels in many of our schools.”

Though masks remain optional at schools, Stephens urged students and staff to wear them indoors in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent unexpected absences for students during graduation events. Many students continued to wear masks indoors after the masking requirement was lifted.

“We have no plans to cancel graduation events. However, individual students who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate at home for at least five days,” Stephens wrote in the message. “This isolation period could prevent a student from attending a graduation ceremony.”

Last year, BUSD graduation ceremonies were held outside and students sat socially distanced from one another. Berkeley High divided its graduation into multiple ceremonies over the course of one weekend to reduce the spread of the virus.

“We’ve learned over the pandemic to use tools to lower our risk,” Hernandez said in statement released by Berkeley’s health department. “Our tools are even more important now with risk so high.”

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.