City of Berkeley ramps up efforts to watch for coronavirus

A reader asked Berkeleyside to find out why firefighters on a call this week were discussing protocols for coronavirus. Here’s what we learned.

The city of Berkeley has stepped up efforts in the past week to monitor for the coronavirus and has reminded people that it’s also not too late to get the flu shot and take basic safety precautions to prevent the much more pervasive seasonal flu.

Nationwide, there have been just five confirmed cases of the new respiratory illness, which has been linked back to Wuhan, China, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Two of those cases were in Southern California. There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Bay Area.

Coronavirus symptoms can be identical to the seasonal flu and include fever, cough or trouble breathing. There have been 4,515 cases globally, 106 of which were fatal, the city of Berkeley reported Tuesday. In contrast to the coronavirus, in the United States alone there have been 15 million seasonal flu cases resulting in 140,000 hospitalizations and 8,200 deaths.

“If you haven’t traveled to Wuhan or come into close contact with someone who is ill and traveled to Wuhan, the risk is low,” said Dr. Lisa Hernandez, who runs the city’s Public Health Division. “Nonetheless, we are preparing for a potential case.


Officials are keeping a close eye on anyone they believe could be at risk. Nearly 100 people in the United States have been classified as “patients under investigation,” according to the CDC, in the states where there have been confirmed cases: California, Washington, Arizona and Illinois.

Last week, it was widely reported in Bay Area media outlets that Alameda County has a small number of people  — “below 10” — who have been classified as patients under investigation. These are people who have been tested for possible exposure to the new virus.

Neetu Balram, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Public Health Department, told Berkeleyside that those numbers do not include anyone in Berkeley, which has its own public health staff. The earlier reports were still accurate as of Wednesday, she said.

So far, approximately 40 people in California have been classified as patients under investigation and have been tested for the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer, told Berkeleyside on Wednesday that, as of this week, all of the counties in the Bay Area have agreed not to release any further information about local patients under investigation because it was causing too much confusion.


“We’re assuring the safety of the community,” Hernandez said. “When there is a case, I will know.”

Matthai Chakko, Berkeley’s city spokesman, said that after last week’s news stories about Alameda County were published, people in the region were “distracted by the information” because it was “confusing to people what it means that a person is under investigation.”

The CDC says people who should be evaluated as patients under investigation (PUI) are those who were in Wuhan around the time of the outbreak and also have a fever and lower respiratory illness; or those who have either of those symptoms and have been in close contact with someone confirmed to have the virus.

Chakko said city staff, particularly in the public health and fire departments and the emergency dispatch center, have been working closely over the past week to ensure that everyone is aware of all issues and procedures related to the coronavirus so they can handle calls appropriately.

“These are the basic response actions that we take for most infectious diseases,” Hernandez said. There has been no evidence in the United States of “community transmission,” where one person contracts the disease from someone else, she said.


City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley spoke briefly about those efforts Tuesday night at the Berkeley City Council meeting and said the city had activated an emergency operations center to coordinate among departments to make sure the city is ready should the coronavirus arrive.

Officials are monitoring the situation closely

A reader contacted Berkeleyside on Tuesday night after a community member heard firefighters who had responded to a home near the UC Berkeley campus discussing protocols for the coronavirus in connection with that call. He was worried, he said, adding that neighbors were also concerned.

Berkeleyside reviewed records from that incident and learned that Alta Bates Hospital had asked the Berkeley Fire Department to pick up a patient who had been discharged after being assessed in connection with concerns related to the coronavirus. The patient had been instructed to wear a face mask at all times after being released.

But the patient had not done so, and had contact with two people in a Berkeley home, according to the information reviewed by Berkeleyside. BFD took all three individuals to the hospital for assessment.

Sutter Health declined to answer any questions about the patients and said only that “your local health department is the best source of information.”

The city would not comment on the possibility of local patients being tested for the virus, citing the regional agreement to withhold all details about patients under investigation (PUI).

“The PUI information is creating fear when there is no need for fear,” Chakko said.


The CDC does, however, report PUI information to the public at the national level. According to the CDC’s website, 68 people who have been tested for the coronavirus have had negative results while results for 92 others are pending.

Speaking generally, Hernandez said there’s no set amount of time for how quickly test results come back because the CDC is handling all of them for the entire nation.

In a statement Tuesday, the city of Berkeley said “public health workers have been working closely with health care providers to ensure that potential cases of coronavirus can be quickly identified. Travelers coming through San Francisco International and other airports have been monitored since mid-January.”

According to the CDC, the outbreak began in December in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. Cases of coronavirus have now also been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the United States, according to the county health department. Symptoms of the virus include a high fever or cough and shortness of breath.

The CDC reports that most patients in the outbreak from Wuhan “have been epidemiologically linked to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting a possible zoonotic origin to the outbreak.” Chinese authorities have said they are monitoring hundreds of healthcare workers who are caring for coronavirus patients and that “no spread of this virus from patients to healthcare personnel has been reported to date.”

UC Berkeley published a message to the campus community on Tuesday and said it is “following all health protocols prescribed by the CDC and reinforced by state, county and city health officials.”

The campus has set up screening procedures for people with symptoms considered “high risk” who come into the Tang Center. They are “moved immediately into a private room and evaluated in coordination with the public health department to see if they meet CDC criteria for testing and isolation,” according to the statement. Senior campus leaders are coordinating the response, and UC’s Office of the President is working to ensure there is “close collaboration” among all UC campuses.

“While this coronavirus is understandably causing worry and anxiety, particularly in those returning from or with family in affected areas in China, the CDC currently believes the risk of the virus to the U.S. general public is low,” UC Berkeley reported.

During flu season, the city reminded the public this week, anyone older than 6 months should get a flu shot and those who are sick should stay home. Other health tips include washing one’s hands regularly with soap and warm water, avoiding contact with people who are sick and “covering your coughs and sneezes with a tissue, upper sleeve or elbow.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.