By Eli Walsh. Bay City News.
The City of Berkeley will waive its COVID-19 vaccination requirement for city employees on March 1, aligning with the end of the state's pandemic emergency declaration.
Existing City of Berkeley employees must show proof of vaccination as of late 2021 unless they have a valid exemption, while all new employees must report their vaccination status as a condition of employment.
That will change next week, officials with the city's Division of Public Health said Tuesday, while masking requirements inside city buildings and vehicles will also be relaxed.
Berkeley is one of three cities in the state, along with Long Beach and Pasadena, that operate as a separate public health jurisdiction.
The city manages its own public health affairs independently of the Alameda County Public Health Department, but the two have generally been aligned during the pandemic.
In an overview report to the Berkeley City Council on the city's response to the pandemic, Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said local public health policies will shift from COVID emergency response to prevention of the worst results of the virus, mainly through vaccines and antiviral drugs.
"As we move into the coming months and years, we will continue to shift our response to prevention and continue to integrate many of the activities that we were doing in the COVID response unit into public health programs," Hernandez noted.
The city has already aligned with state public health policy on other issues, including when and where face coverings are required or simply recommended.
Through February 28, masks are still required regardless of vaccination status in healthcare and long-term care facilities.
They are also required in homeless and emergency shelters, and in jails and prisons if the county in which the facility is located has a medium or high level of COVID spread, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control from USA
As of February 16, all 11 counties in the greater Bay Area have community-low levels of COVID, according to CDC data.
Hernández and the director of Health, Housing and Community Services, Dr. Lisa Warhuus, detailed that the city is much better equipped now to handle the virus in the future than at any time during the pandemic.
Berkeley's average annual case rate per 100,000 residents has increased in each of the past three years, peaking at 20.5 cases in 2022.
However, the number of COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths has decreased in each of the past three years.
Hernández pointed out that the increase in cases is partly due to the end of restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as increasingly contagious variants.
He also credited the widespread availability of vaccines and therapeutic drugs as a catalyst for lessening the "severe impacts" of the virus.
According to Hernandez, the city has the highest vaccination and booster rates in the Bay Area at 94 percent and 92 percent, respectively.
About 42 percent of Berkeley residents also received the bivalent booster shot, which targets two strains of the highly contagious omicron variant.
All three vaccination rates also exceed state figures, Hernandez said.
"Our community has been very receptive to science and has been a strong partner with us as we weathered this pandemic," he said Tuesday.
Levels of the COVID virus in Berkeley's wastewater are currently below their December peak, but are still relatively elevated compared to last spring, according to city data.
Overall, the city has confirmed 22,585 COVID cases since the pandemic began, and the current reported citywide test positivity rate is just under 7 percent.
Both are undercounts, Hernandez explained, as the city does not track or report the results of in-home COVID tests.
The virus has also killed 74 residents, according to the city.
“I am confident that this very difficult part of our history has better prepared us to respond to emergencies in the future,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin.
"It's obviously changed the way we live, it's changed the way we work and there's really no going back," he said. "It's a matter of how we move forward."
You may be interested in: CDC adds vaccine against COVID-19 to the basic vaccination schedule for children and adolescents