Man, 80, has first lab-confirmed community-spread COVID-19 case in Berkeley

The patient is recovering in isolation, but his experience is another indication that the novel coronavirus is spreading throughout Berkeley.

large hospital building
An 80-year-old Berkeley man was tested for COVID-19 at Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center on Tuesday and got his positive results Friday. Photo: Google Maps

Update, 3:50 p.m. A spokesman for the city of Berkeley confirmed that there is a new, lab-confirmed COVID-19 case in Berkeley contracted through community spread, bringing the total number of test-confirmed cases in the city to six.

However, said Matthai Chakko, that case is undoubtedly “not the first and not the last” case of community spread in Berkeley. “We expect more.” Because not everyone can — and not everyone should, he said — get tested for the coronavirus, it is likely that the disease has been passed around the city for some time.

The Berkeley health officer and her counterparts across the Bay Area ordered residents to shelter in place early this week “because she already believed it was happening in Berkeley,” Chakko said. “There’s no medicine to treat COVID-19, so social distancing and other measures are really essential.”

Original story, 1:49 p.m. An 80-year-old man reportedly has the first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in Berkeley that was contracted through “community spread.” His girlfriend told Berkeleyside that the city contacted the couple to determine that.


The city has so far announced five known coronavirus cases within its jurisdiction, but they were attributed to travel outside of Berkeley. The city has said the number of confirmed cases doesn’t reflect the true risk to the public, however, as testing is limited and there has been widespread community transmission throughout the Bay Area. There are 65 confirmed coronavirus cases in Alameda County.

The Bay Area — and now statewide — shelter-in-place order is meant to slow that community spread.

The 80-year-old North Berkeley resident, who first started feeling off on Thursday, March 12, has not traveled anywhere recently. He and his girlfriend “have absolutely no idea” how exactly he became sick, she said. (Berkeleyside is not naming either person, to protect their privacy.) Berkeleyside is waiting for confirmation from the city about this case.

“It’s strange because his doctor didn’t even think it was respiratory,” said the man’s girlfriend in a phone interview Saturday morning. “He was just disoriented — maybe achy like something was very wrong, but he didn’t have any flu-like symptoms at all,” she said. But he had “seemingly fainted” and fallen, and doctors wanted to check him out.

On Tuesday, the couple headed to Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. While in the emergency room, the man’s temperature shot up to 102 degrees.

“There was this racking shaking of his body. That was when I was scared,” she said. “It wasn’t that bone-muscle pain, it was more like chest-abdomen pain. The fever looked and felt different than the flu.”

Kaiser immediately admitted the man and tested him for COVID-19. His girlfriend said he’s generally healthy, but that his age and fever were apparently his ticket to a rare coronavirus test — which was sent over to Stanford for analysis.

“Kaiser was completely set up for an onslaught of viral patients, but they weren’t having a flood of patients yet,” she said. The man was hospitalized for two nights, then sent home where he’s been slowly recovering in quarantine. On Friday, he received news from Kaiser that his test came back positive. The woman said they got a call from a nurse in Berkeley’s health division, which is independent from the Alameda County Public Health Department, late Friday afternoon.

“A city of Berkeley public health nurse called and was asking a lot of questions,” she said. The city told the couple it was the first known case of community spread in Berkeley, she said. The nurse also emailed the couple with information from the Centers for Disease Control and asked for a list of everyone the man had interacted with since he got sick, she said.

Berkeleyside has asked the city of Berkeley for confirmation about the apparent community spread but has not heard back. The woman said the only test results they’ve received so far were shared over the phone by Kaiser.

At the hospital, no visitors were permitted to see the man. And his girlfriend was not allowed to come inside to pick him up.

“The only glitch in the system was because he was allowed absolutely no visitors, they didn’t communicate things the best to us,” she said. “They wheeled him away from the hospital, but nobody told me ahead of time where in the couple blocks of Kaiser he’d be waiting. You could tell this was a new thing” for the hospital.

While the man was ordered to isolate, “he’s 80 and just out of the hospital. You can’t just quarantine him and walk away,” said his girlfriend. The couple has been quarantining at home together, and not going outside at all.

“I kind of assume I have it,” said the woman, though she’s showing no symptoms.

The man doesn’t go out much in general, she said, but was at the Safeway at 1444 Shattuck Place, at Rose Street, last Sunday. She said she wanted people who visited that Safeway that day to know that. Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, public health officials have advised anyone who is feeling sick to stay home, self-isolate and call their doctor.

“I’ve been emailing everybody he had a meal with, and so far nobody’s reported being sick,” the man’s girlfriend said.

Since the man was released from the hospital, he has been slowly recovering.

“He made his own breakfast and is eating it now,” his girlfriend said during the Saturday morning interview.

She said her main takeaway from the experience is that the coronavirus is likely much more widespread in Berkeley and the East Bay than the number of lab-confirmed cases implies. Her boyfriend happened to be 80 and feverish so they learned for sure what many others will never know about themselves. The city also put out a statement Thursday advising residents about how to comply with the shelter-in-place order and slow community spread.

“I assume it must be around,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously a reporter for Berkeleyside. Email: natalie@oaklandside.org. Twitter: nat_orenstein.