It’s the third year of the pandemic and COVID-19 is not even close to disappearing. The latest surge, driven by the highly transmissible sub-variant BA.5, has created a plateau of high case rates that have persisted over several months, only beginning to subside in the last week or so.
In Berkeley and Oakland, people have been taking the virus seriously for years—the majority of people are vaccinated and boosted; Berkeley’s death rate is among the lowest in California, and mask-wearing remains high even in schools and stores where it’s not required.
But with the most recent surge, the pandemic fatigue that has plagued other parts of the country seems to have finally caught up with the East Bay. While some maintain a high level of vigilance, many others are taking BA.5 in stride, prioritizing learning to live with the virus rather than taking additional precautions.
Invincible at 82 years old
At Berkeley’s Chaparral House, a skilled nursing home next to Strawberry Creek Park, the residents are among the most vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID-19. But many can’t be bothered to worry about the virus.
I asked Elaine Hirtle, who is in her early-90s and originally from Watts, whether she’s concerned about COVID-19, especially with the latest surge.
“Oh, that?” she asked. “It’s just another illness that we have to deal with.” And, she added after a pause, “What’s to worry? You’ll either get it or you won’t.”
The staff at Chaparral House seem to do all the worrying. PA Cooley, who’s in charge of admissions and marketing, “freaked out” when the pandemic started and still feels the threat lurking in the most innocuous places: Will it be the hairdresser he hires to cut the residents’ hair that causes the center’s first outbreak?
With stringent protocols and a bit of luck, Chaparral House has avoided the kind of outbreaks that the staff heard about at other senior homes: only 12 residents have tested positive in the last two and a half years — the first case was during the omicron surge — and none have died from COVID.
Nancy Brumbaugh, whose jaw dropped when her daughter reminded her that she was 92 years old, has emphysema from a lifetime of smoking. She gets tested twice a week, along with the other residents. She seemed more concerned about hearing me through my “stupid mask” than she was about catching the virus.
Nancy’s daughter, Merrill Page, visits each week. But even Page admits that pandemic fatigue has finally caught up with her. “Lately, it’s been harder to stay the course,” she said, admitting to dining indoors on several occasions.
Brumbaugh was unfazed. “I figure I’m in a place where they take good care of us,” she said.
“On some level, I must think I’m invincible,” said Rivian Berlin, another resident. “It’s good to feel that way if you’re 82.”
— Ally Markovich
‘I guess we have to live with it’
The pandemic has forced many to shift lanes, examine behaviors, and try to form new ones based on the knowledge available. For many, it has also increased appreciation for simple pleasures like time with friends and family.
This was true for Tegsti Woldemichael, who lost her Middle Eastern and East African spice company during the early days of lockdown.
“There was little money but lots of love to each other,” said Woldemichael about the time immediately after the store’s closure. She’d named her business, Shamden Spice, by combining the names of her two sons.
Embracing the unexpected as best she could, Woldemichael, who has owned and operated multiple businesses, quickly pivoted by leasing space on Telegraph Avenue and pursuing one of her longtime dreams of opening a deli and bakery. She opened La Dolce Vita in May 2021.
“Somehow, the dream came true,” chuckled Woldemichael, recalling the emotional peaks and valleys of those early pandemic days.
Despite working in a public-facing business, Woldemichael and her family have been able to avoid COVID-19 infection. But fear of what the virus still might bring, both personally and to the wider community, came up several times in our conversation, and Woldemichael worries for her children: “When you have family and when you’re alone, it’s different right?”
Still, Wodemichael prefers to not linger on negative thoughts. “From the place or the lifestyle I came from, I’m not really one to panic,” she said.
Woldemichael emigrated to Oakland in 1991 from Eritrea, at a time when that region was experiencing war. Her arrival happened just after the firestorm of 1991 rolled through the Oakland Hills, where she now lives with her family. Her dream of owning a bakery on Telegraph began not long after.
“I think we learn so much from the things that we take for granted, how life is. We learned… how to be with little, almost nothing,” she said. “And I think the future will be much brighter. That’s why I took a long lease on the business,” said Woldemichael, who has a 20-year lease for La Dolce Vita.
As for navigating a third year of the pandemic, Woldemichael is glad to be pushing back out into the world, at least somewhat. “I’m still distancing when I can, as much as I can. Still, we’re not free from COVID,” she said. “I guess we have to live with it.”
— Luke Wrin Piper
Weathering the pandemic with young kids
On June 18, the CDC approved the vaccine for children under 5 years old, the last age group to become eligible for the vaccine.
Though the majority of infections in children have been mild, some parents are still wary of the potential impacts of the virus on their children, even now that vaccines are available for all but the youngest.
On the basketball court at Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek Park, two brothers shoot hoops while their mom, Mimi Ohta, watches from a nearby picnic table.
“We haven’t opened up yet, really,” said Ohta, who moved to Berkeley with her husband and two kids from New York City on March 13, 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold. “We’re still waiting to discover the new place we live.”
Ohta has allowed herself only a few outings — two comedy shows, and she recently bought tickets for a concert at the Greek Theater — but she hasn’t brought the kids. When they have taken family vacations, they have opted for isolated retreats over sightseeing in the city.
“I believe in my immune system,” she says by way of explanation, but she feels more cautious when it comes to her children.
Plus, Ohta says, hers are “inside kids.” Her son said the pandemic has been great because he got to play more video games inside.
Other parents haven’t had much of a choice in their exposure to the virus. At the playground beside the basketball court, Silas Times is watching his 3-year-old, Jack, play by himself.
“He’s my main concern,” Times said, nodding toward his son. “I just make sure he’s taken care of.”
For Times, taking care of Jack has meant keeping his job at Angeline’s, a Cajun restaurant a few blocks away from the park, even though he gets regular notifications that he’s been exposed to the virus at work.
Times was laid off at the start of the pandemic, and it took a year for him to get back to work. Now he can’t afford to miss out on another paycheck.
“I don’t want to say I don’t care about COVID because I do,” Times said. “Sometimes I don’t want to go to work, but I have to. I have to take care of my son.”
— Ally Markovich
At college, slowly getting back to some sense of normalcy
Schools experienced some of the biggest disruptions of the early pandemic, including Merritt College, which sits at the end of a winding uphill grade in Oakland’s Caballo Hills neighborhood. Informal talk of closing Merritt and the other Peralta Community College campuses quickly became a reality, as case numbers shot up across the East Bay in spring 2020.
It was during this time, shortly after lockdowns took effect, that Nancy Moreno began a new job as staff assistant dean at Merritt.
“It was really hard to get a hold of everything because I had to basically learn everything remotely,” said Moreno, whose previous job was with Laney College’s Umoja-UBAKA community program for African American students. “It was really hard to ask questions and basically navigate everything.”
The same was true for Merritt’s students, she said, after the school decided to switch to fully remote learning. At the time, the high demand for Chromebooks and mobile hotspots outweighed the college district’s ability to get them into students’ hands.
“It’s hard to look at your students [and] tell them that…I had to close down and was not going to be able to be there for them as a support,” said Moreno.
Nearly two and a half years later, Moreno said the district has finally begun to catch up with the needs of many students. Chromebooks and hotspots have been widely distributed across the district, and Laney College, also part of the Peralta College District, is offering a tuition-free semester to all students for the fall.
As a result, Moreno feels less anxious and a lot more confident in her ability to help students be successful—even if the new school year that kicks off on Aug. 22 is beginning with yet another COVID-19 surge.
“In the beginning, I think that we were all just learning,” she said. “Now they are getting the support that they need. They have all the resources and they know who to call. And a lot of us have made ourselves available in person, so if they need anything, we’re there for them.”
Moreno herself is optimistic about the future. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2020, and only recently was able to walk the stage at a special ceremony for those who missed their chance to celebrate during the lockdown. In keeping with the times, the in-person ceremony was optional. Moreno was glad to attend.
“It was really good because you could see everyone coming together after two years,” said Moreno. “Obviously everyone was masked up, but we were able to gather and celebrate.”
— Luke Wrin Piper
Pandemic fatigue in the delivery wing
A delivery nurse at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, Donna Evans has brought hundreds of babies into the world since the start of the pandemic. From her place in the labor and delivery unit, she has witnessed people’s shifting attitudes toward COVID-19.
In the beginning, the hospital had strict rules in place to protect patients and hospital staff. “We had people who gave birth by themselves. And everyone understood why, ” Evans said.
Then, as people got vaccinated, the hospital lifted some restrictions, allowing more visitors during childbirth and to meet the newborn. Now, even though cases have surged again, some bristle at even the remaining hospital rules.
“We have a lot of fatigue with the COVID practices,” Evans said. “People who can’t believe we still require a negative test from [unvaccinated] visitors… that even the father of the baby needs to have a test. They just feel like it should be over by now.”
When asked if she was frustrated with people who argue with the nurses or tried to bend the rules, Evans said no. Since vaccines are so effective at preventing serious illness — Evans can’t remember treating a single vaccinated mother who was seriously sick — she gets it.
Evans still follows the rules, but she doesn’t resent those who don’t. For example, Evans went on a cruise to Alaska this summer and the only people wearing masks were her, the employees, and another nurse (and her husband, but only when she was looking, Evans joked).
The only people who Evans does get frustrated by are those who are unvaccinated, who represent the majority of people who get seriously sick from COVID.
During pregnancy, the body is already working overtime to care for a baby, so the risk of COVID infection can be more serious, especially for the unvaccinated.
Most pregnant people can recover from the virus at home on their own, said Evans, though some need supplemental oxygen. But in rare cases, she said, mothers have gotten so sick that their baby had to be delivered prematurely through a cesarean section in order for the mother to survive the COVID infection.
Even then, Evans doesn’t blame anyone for their health decisions. “We have to remind ourselves that this person is doing the best with what they know.”
— Ally Markovich
A first responder sees fears beginning to ease
For Oakland Fire Department Captain Tanisha Tucker, contending with forces that aren’t easily controlled has always just been part of the job. Controlling what happens in her own career, however, is something different.
Although Tucker is from Southern California, she set her sights on the Oakland Fire Department early on in her career, feeling a personal connection to the town as a longtime resident. She made the position of captain last month after 20 years of working in the department.
Despite working steadily as a first responder throughout the pandemic, Tucker has avoided COVID-19 infection. And while she and her family have been diligent around COVID safety, Tucker said she’s at a loss to explain exactly how she’s managed to stay healthy, other than luck. She has known nearly a dozen people who have gotten sick at some point, all vaccinated and boosted and every bit as cautious as her.
On a professional level, wearing masks inside the homes of sick people has become standard for first-responders interacting with sick members of the public, whether that person has COVID or not, something that she believes should have been common practice for years.
But not everyone in the department has been willing to vaccinate themselves, even at the cost of losing their job.
“[The mandate] has brought a lot of tension, especially initially. It’s kind of easing now,” she said. But still, she added, “with the department or the city requiring it, and the people who still haven’t decided to get vaccinated, they could be terminated. And that does create a lot of divisiveness.”
For her part, Tucker participated in weekly testing earlier in the pandemic. And while she isn’t testing as regularly now, she said she is also traveling less, wearing masks in crowds and indoor spaces, and distancing when she can. With the prevalence of vaccines, Tucker believes people’s fears have begun to ease.
“You want to be courteous, and respectful,” she said of working with the public. “If people really want to feel like ‘I’d rather everyone wear a mask,’ then that’s what we’ll do.”
— Luke Wrin Piper