Organizers from Senior and Disability Action protest at the Alameda County Department of Public Health headquarters in Oakland, Calif. on March 20, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Berkeley and Oakland are again experiencing a COVID-19 surge, but the number of cases are far below a previous spike during this same period last summer, according to wastewater data, test positivity rates and emergency department hospitalizations.

The surge follows a general trend that’s taken place every summer since 2020. At this time last summer, average weekly case rates in the county were around 20 per 100,000 people. That number is lower this August, at about five cases weekly, but it’s been rising in the last few weeks.

Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland, said several factors come into play when it comes to a surge: new variants, people not current on their COVID boosters and traveling.

“Most people haven’t had a booster in nine months or even longer,” she said. “We have a perfect storm of some waning protection from being far out from vaccines or boosters.” 

Everyone 6 months or older is eligible for at least one bivalent booster, except people at high-risk who may qualify for a second bivalent booster.

A new subvariant of omicron called XBB — that also shares lineage with EG.5 or “Eris” — is the latest variant accounting for the growing number of cases locally and across the United States. 

The new variant accounts for about 7% of all new infections in the Bay Area, according to the state’s communicable diseases assessment tool.

Lisa Warhuus, Berkeley director of the city’s health, housing and community services department, said omicron variants are still the most dominant locally. Cases doubled between July 20 to Aug. 16, with the seven-day average now hovering at 4.7 cases per 100,000 people. This is about the same as the county case rate, which has now dropped to about 3.5 cases per 100,000 people.

There have been no new deaths or hospitalizations in Berkeley between July and August, Warhuus added. The city is responding to three small outbreaks, with eight cases between a school, a senior nursing facility and another unidentified location.

She said there have not been any “exposure events” at homeless shelters during this period. Berkeley Health Officer, Dr. Lisa Hernandez, left the city in May and Warhuus said the city now has a memorandum of understanding with the county’s Dr. Nicholas Moss to serve as an interim.

Alameda County’s test positivity rates were around 5% in June, then began to climb to roughly 12% now, said Aboelata. Positivity rates only account for people who do a PCR test. The county last saw similar COVID numbers in February, at the peak of the flu season. 

Getting a clear picture of COVID infection rates has become much harder since the federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Declaration ended on May 11, added Aboelata, because it requires “patching” together the wastewater, hospitalization and case rate data.

Wastewater testing in Alameda County does not currently show any levels of influenza or RSV, a respiratory virus, added Aboelata. So people experiencing cold-like symptoms should test themselves for COVID.

“It’s important to distinguish what it is that you have,” she said. “And the only way you can do that is by getting tested.” 

Some community testing sites in Oakland shifted their services from providing free testing for everyone to focusing on only those underinsured or uninsured. There are no longer any city-run testing sites in Berkeley.

How to get COVID tests, vaccines and treatments

Health insurance providers are no longer federally required to cover over-the-counter COVID-19 test kits at pharmacies, but California is continuing payments for these tests for at least six more months. In November, reimbursements will only be required for in-network providers of at-home tests. Check with your insurance provider to make sure they are considered in-network.

Under California law, those enrolled in a health care plan will continue to receive PCR testing, vaccines, and up to eight at-home testing kits per month, free of charge. The free resources will continue as long as COVID services are provided through their health care network. For example, Kaiser members can order up to eight tests monthly, in person or via mail. 

Medi-Cal beneficiaries will continue to receive COVID testing, vaccines and treatments free of charge while the federal supplies last.

Vaccines, treatments and at-home tests will remain accessible for most Medicare patients. However, PCR testing will only be covered when ordered by a health care provider. Those with only Medicare Part A (hospital-based care) will no longer have access to the free at-home test kits.

Aboelata said that even for those whose COVID symptoms felt like the common cold, there are still those who can end up with long COVID that can cause clots, heart attacks, strokes, and prolonged symptoms that could lead to neurological issues or a new onset of diabetes. 

A new booster designed to target the XBB variants is expected to be available at the end of September, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People will be able to receive both the booster and flu shot at the same time.

Aboelata said that given the current rise in COVID cases, it is important to mask indoors in crowded public places. 

“I haven’t stopped wearing masks in indoor environments because I still don’t want to get COVID,” she said. “For folks who are relaxing when it seems like cases are lower, and then stepping it up and putting on a mask when cases get higher, yes, we are at that point.”

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...

Azucena Rasilla reports on arts and community for The Oaklandside. She is an East Oakland native and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local, bilingual journalist,...