A student getting the COVID-19 vaccine at a Kaiser pop-up at Oakland Tech in August 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in the Bay Area as residents face their second holiday season in the pandemic, but local health experts say the region is much better equipped to handle this surge than previous ones.

The first omicron case in the United States was detected in San Francisco in late November, and while localized data isn’t yet available for Alameda County, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting that the variant comprises about 60% of all new cases in California (alongside a significant portion of delta variant cases) and 75% of those in the country. A Stanford virology lab found that about 71% of its samples contained the variant.

Jump straight to Q&As about COVID-19 and the omicron variant

We spoke to epidemiologist Dr. Kim Rhoads of UC San Francisco, who runs Umoja Health in Oakland, Berkeley health officers Dr. Lisa Hernandez and Dr. Lisa Warhuus, and Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss, and compiled information from local officials and health professionals to answer your questions about COVID-19, the omicron and delta variants and how to stay safe.

There’s a lot scientists don’t know about the new variant, including why exactly it spreads faster than other forms of COVID-19, like delta, and how severe it is. But they do know vaccinated individuals are much less likely to experience severe infections or death, that people with booster shots have significantly more protection against omicron and delta, and that mitigation measures — wearing masks, avoiding indoor, unmasked gatherings, social distancing and washing your hands — are still extremely effective tools in limiting the spread of the virus, and therefore preventing deaths in people who are most vulnerable.

New York City, which is in the thick of its surge, has seen cases double over the first two weeks of December and the CDC says over 90% of new cases in the area are due to the omicron variant. The New York City metro area has a lower vaccination rate than Alameda County, at about 70% compared to 80% locally, which could mean the impacts are slower to arrive. In Berkeley, about 40% of residents are boosted and officials are pushing for residents to get boosted if they’re eligible.

“Here in the Bay Area, we have very high vaccination rates. We have high rates of mask use, and also, you know, we have milder weather this time of year,” Moss said, noting that places like New York City have historically predicted surges across the country. “All of those things together may slow down the arrival of a winter wave, and they may have protected us from a delta wave so far that has affected other parts of the country.”

But there is still potential for a worse hospitalization surge than last winter, Moss said, and it’s not yet clear if California will fare better than the East Coast overall. Scientists are, however, studying early signs that the omicron wave may surge and fall quickly.

Rhoads noted that the July 2021 delta surge locally fell rapidly and, amidst it, California became the state with the lowest transmission rate in the country because of high vaccination rates, as well as strong mitigation measures like masking and social distancing.

“It’s the mitigation measures on top of vaccination that makes the difference,” Rhoads said, especially as health officials continue campaigns to provide vaccinations and boosters to vulnerable populations and protect them against COVID-19. “We keep promising, ‘Now that we have vaccines, it’s all gonna be good.’ But that’s not true if everyone is not getting vaccinated at the same rate.”

Warhuus, who has headed up Berkeley’s vaccine equity programs throughout the pandemic, emphasized that health leaders are considering vaccines on a case-by-case basis, and even one additional person who chooses to get vaccinated is a “huge win.” About 92% of all 120,000 residents in Berkeley are fully vaccinated, Hernandez said, with around 98% having at least one dose.

“We’re going to continue to offer vaccines, continue to offer information and continue to have positive conversations,” Warhuus said. “As people see the safety of vaccines, it’s eventually shifting people’s minds.”

As local health experts keep an eye on a rapidly changing situation with the omicron variant, we’ve compiled information to help you stay safe, get tested, find vaccine and booster appointments and navigate social situations this winter. You can also check out our COVID-19 page for updated data and thorough information about the latest developments with the virus.

“Timing is poor for this variant to show up. We have to keep our mental health, our personal joy still alive,” Hernandez said. “Usually, the holidays are those times for people. But knowing that we have these tools … they’ll help us have those joys, or look forward to participating in those joys soon.”

Q&A: How to get through the holiday season safely

Can I gather indoors for the holidays?

In Alameda County, there are no hard and fast guidelines about private indoor gatherings. “There are going to be no specific numbers” limiting the size of events, said Hernandez at Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s COVID-19 town hall on Dec. 13.

In general, the more precautions you take, the safer you, your friends, and your family will be.

“We know what are features of safer environments,” Hernandez said. “If you could encourage any of those features at your holiday celebrations, I would.” 

The advice is nothing new. Keep your gathering small, keep it outside or at least well-ventilated, and get tested before the event. Experts agree that the best way to avoid transmission is to stay outside completely.

How easy is it to get tested right now?

A COVID-19 test site in Oakland. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Similar to other parts of the country, a crush of demand driven by the new variant and holiday gatherings has made it more difficult to get a COVID-19 test in Berkeley.

Rapid at-home tests have flown off of pharmacy shelves. On Monday morning, only two out of 11 Berkeley pharmacies reached by a reporter had any tests in stock, and soon enough both of those stores were out as well. 

Several sold-out stores said they were expecting to get more at-home tests this week, though, so you may be able to find some by calling around. (Some hard-won advice from the reporter who called those stores: to avoid getting stuck in maddening phone systems, say “store product” when you call a CVS location and “talk to store” when you call a Walgreens to reach a real person.)

There are still local options for free and more-reliable PCR tests, but getting one before Christmas may be a challenge. Here’s a list of where to get a free COVID-19 test in Oakland.

The Curative testing site at the Berkeley Adult School, 1701 San Pablo Ave., allows people to walk up and get tested without an appointment, which you might need to do because advanced slots are booked for both Wednesday and Thursday. The site will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but hundreds of appointments are available on Sunday. Other Berkeley testing sites managed by OptumServe, which require appointments in advance, are booked for the days before Christmas but have open slots after the holiday.

At the Curative site around noon Tuesday, a couple dozen people waited in line for tests; workers told patients it would take 24 to 48 hours for them to receive their test results.

What precautions should I take before gathering for the holidays?

  • Keep it small. “In order to limit the risk, smaller is going to be better,” said Moss, who is currently planning to attend a holiday gathering with relatives who live in the Bay Area, although he’s keeping an eye on case rates.
  • Outdoors is safer than indoors. Consider hosting your holiday gathering outdoors, weather permitting. If that’s not feasible, you could open a window to increase ventilation.
  • Get tested before you gather. Take a COVID-19 test before traveling or attending a holiday party, and get a PCR test five days after. If you experience any symptoms, it’s always better to stay home. 

Hernandez recommends getting tested before gathering and again five days after a party. “I have a son coming home – I’ve got a test waiting for him,” Hernandez said. 

Ideally, you want to take a PCR test as close to the day of the event as possible. If you’re asymptomatic, PCR tests are far more effective at detecting the virus than the rapid tests you can take at home.

“I do think it’s important to test as close to the event as possible, maybe even the same day, because we know that people can test negative one day and get sick the next day,” Moss said. 

Taking two rapid tests, spaced apart by a day or so, can increase your confidence that you don’t have the virus. But rapid, self-tests are only accurate at detecting whether you’re shedding virus at the time of the test, so don’t use that as long-term assurance.

  • Limit how many risky activities you do in the week leading up to gathering

Consider taking additional precautions this week to reduce the chances that you are exposed to COVID-19. Cutting out indoor dining, avoiding attending multiple gatherings, and wearing masks indoors — even when it’s not required —  all make it less likely that you will catch and spread the virus.

I’m going to see someone with a weakened immune system at a party, or afterward. Should I wear a mask?

If someone in your family has a weakened immune system, wear a mask to protect them. Among the fully vaccinated, it’s older people — Moss said people’ over 50′ — who have still ended up in the hospital due to COVID-19. 

I’ve been vaccinated but have not gotten my booster. Am I safe to attend a family gathering?

In this case, three shots are better than two. It’s not yet known just how effective vaccines are against the omicron variant, but one study out of South African suggests that even two doses of the vaccine may not stand up as well. Getting a booster adds a stronger layer of protection against the virus, especially the relatively unknown risk posed by the new variant. 

Make appointments to get your COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot through the state website.

I have young kids that can’t get vaccinated. Are they at risk?

Young children have been the least vulnerable to the virus compared to every other age group. In California, children under 18 account for just .1% of deaths due to COVID-19 and 15% of cases, though they make up 22% of the state’s population. In Berkeley, no one under 35 has died of COVID-19. 

Scientists don’t yet know whether the omicron variant affects children differently. “With Omicron, it’s just too early; we need more time to get an accurate picture of severity … [for] different age groups,” Moss said. 

Moss, who has a child under 5 years old, said his family plans to be more cautious due to the winter surge. “We’re going to be a little bit more careful over the next month or two.”

Is it safe to eat indoors?

Experts agree that dining in a restaurant’s outdoor space is far less risky than inside its dining room, and every official Berkeleyside spoke with this week said that they’ve curtailed indoor restaurant meals within recent days. So has Bob Wachter, the chair of the department of medicine at UC San Francisco, who tweeted, “indoor dining not worth risk to me. Outdoor dining: fine for now.” 

One of the main reasons indoor dining is off the table for so many is masking, which isn’t possible while one eats or drinks. Diners are supposed to put their masks back on when not eating or drinking, but anyone who’s visited a restaurant can confirm that most diners are seated, their masks remain off until they’re ready to depart.

“Along with vaccination, use of face coverings is one of the best ways we can protect ourselves,” said Hernandez (who has not dined indoors “for a while.”) “With something like eating indoors … we lose that.”

Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, whose indoor dining proof of vaccination order (a restriction that’s very similar to Berkeley’s) was approved on Tuesday, told Berkeleyside that indoor dining is likely to be safer in restaurants that require all patrons to be vaccinated but consider this: many restaurants that have long required proof have also closed down this week as a wave of positive cases hits members of the region’s service industry. 

According to Moss, the county doesn’t have any current plans to require restaurants county-wide to require proof of vaccination; Kalb’s measure will not go into effect until Feb. 1.

Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area virologist Warner Greene (who has also stopped dining inside restaurants) said that “there’s always a risk evaluation” when it comes to indoor dining and warned, “You don’t only have to worry about a diner 6 feet from you, you have to worry about someone who was there 30 minutes earlier because the virus can persist in the air.”

Is there another lockdown coming in Berkeley?

While it can seem like Berkeley and the Bay are hurtling toward another spate of business closures and lockdowns, Hernandez said there’s no plan at this current time to enforce those types of rules in Berkeley. But health officials and community members are well aware that the pandemic is not over.

“We have no desire to do another lockdown, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen at some point,” she said, while also noting that there hasn’t been a death recorded in Berkeley since Aug. 24, as well as strong vaccination numbers and region-wide support of mask mandates and other mitigation measures.

“I wish we weren’t here,” said Hernandez, describing the difficulties of processing and understanding a new variant as a community. “But we have tools that we didn’t have a year ago … basically until this January. I’m hoping that the darkest days are behind us. While we are seeing this variant in front of us, and now in front of our communities, we have these tools to keep us protected.”

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then, he has covered transportation, law enforcement, education and college sports for the San Jose Mercury News, EdSource, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Janesville Gazette and The Daily Cardinal. A graduate of Berkeley High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he now lives in Oakland with his wife and dog.