Berkeley tries grassroots methods to avoid ‘vaccine hunters,’ reach vulnerable groups

Churches and community organizations are helping with an equity-minded COVID-19 vaccine outreach.

A quiet COVID-19 vaccine rollout at the Ed Roberts campus this week was one of Berkeley’s first forays into an equity-based distribution for community members who can’t easily make appointments online or access local mass vaccination sites.

The Center for Independent Living set up the mobile site on Sunday in partnership with the state office of emergency services (CalOES), as well as Alameda County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and AmeriCorps. It’s located in the back parking lot of the Ed Roberts campus, across from Ashby BART, and was open for the duration of this week through Friday afternoon. It will close and return in the same spot for second doses of the Pfizer vaccine in three weeks.

Lisa Warhuus, director of the Berkeley health, housing and community services has been overseeing the city’s vaccine rollout and outreach for this site. It is markedly different from mass vaccination sites at Golden Gate Fields in Albany and the Oakland Coliseum, and local officials have employed multiple methods to keep it that way.

It’s one of the few sites to allow walk-in vaccinations without appointments, there’s numerous volunteers and tables set up to guide residents through the state’s MyTurn registration and there was no digital effort on behalf of the city to spread the word. Outreach was limited to word-of-mouth through Black churches, monolingual Spanish speakers and community based organizations, Warhuus said.


Vaccines were still limited to the current eligible groups — essential workers, residents over the age of 65, in-person educators and grocery and food service workers — but Warhuus said officials kept the site relatively under the radar to prevent appointments from being flooded by residents who could instead access Golden Gate Fields or another mass vaccination site.

In the coming weeks, Warhuus said the city will ramp up its outreach and host mobile vaccination clinics at shelters, low-income senior housing, and areas of Berkeley that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The locations and dates of these clinics have not been confirmed yet.

There’s no such thing as “extra doses,” health officials emphasize

Lisa Warhuus
Lisa Warhuus talks to workers at the Ed Roberts mobile vaccination site on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

As the day came to a close at the Ed Roberts vaccination clinic earlier this week, workers saw an unusual number of residents trickling in and lining up at the entrance. They seemed to be waiting for something.

It turned out that they were non-eligible residents who had heard about “extra doses” of the vaccine and were hopeful they could get a shot themselves. Though that method of “vaccine hunting” has reportedly been successful in other cities, it’s unlikely to work in Berkeley.

Officials have emphasized since the beginning of the vaccine rollout that they’re not wasting a single drop of vaccine, and that remains true logistically. Vaccine vials with five to six doses aren’t opened until five to six residents are registered, prepped and ready to go, Warhuus said, and the rest of the vials remain in storage for the next day. If there aren’t enough residents to use up a batch together, they’re sometimes asked to return the next day.

Vaccine spoiling was reported in the U.S. early this year, but officials throughout California have been debunking the idea recently. Rumors about spoilage and extra doses have also fueled non-eligible Bay Area residents to cut the line and take advantage of vaccine “access codes” designated for Black and Latino residents.

SFGate reported this week that residents in Marin were using these access codes to get vaccine appointments at the Oakland Coliseum mass vaccination site after receiving text messages that there were “extra doses.”

Berkeley hasn’t been using access codes, according to city Emergency Services Coordinator Katie Hawn, who was at the Ed Roberts site on Friday with Warhuus. The city has been trying other methods to “hide” vaccine appointments, like doing in-person registration, or asking community leaders to individually sign up residents who need the vaccine. Several people who accessed the site this week walked in after seeing signs in their South Berkeley neighborhood.

But it doesn’t bring city health officials any pleasure to limit the rollout so stringently, and Hawn said everyone has individual circumstances that may need a vaccine, even if they’re not eligible yet. Warhuus had to deny at least two local residents who worked in finance and had heard about the site from others on Friday, .

“It’s heartbreaking,” Hawn said. “It’s very difficult to turn people away. People are scared, this is the glimmer of hope they’ve been waiting for. But we have to follow those guidelines, because if we don’t, we risk losing our [state] vaccine allocations.”

While non-eligible residents can wait their turn, there’s also the complicated problem of residents who are actually eligible for the vaccine but are not part of marginalized groups who need prioritized access.

Supply of the vaccine remains low throughout California and appointments have been filling up incredibly quickly at vaccination sites throughout the Bay Area. As a result, posts on social media pointing out vaccination sites have spread like wildfire.

This happened a few weeks ago when the city began rolling out limited vaccines at the North Berkeley Senior Center, Warhuus said. The city didn’t broadcast the information but residents did, and the site ended up handing out several doses to residents who were tech-savvy, or had the quickest access to online information.

“Once you put a link up, the people who show up aren’t always the people we’re targeting with outreach,” Warhuus said.

First speed, then an equity model for COVID-19 vaccines in Berkeley

Patients sit in the monitoring area and wait for at least 15 minutes to ensure they do not have any adverse allergic reactions to the vaccine, which are rare. Feb. 25, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved in December 2020, and Berkeley got its first “shots in arms” at Alta Bates Hospital later that month. For much of January, Berkeley residents watched a vaccine rollout process that seemed to unfold painfully slowly as only essential workers and residents of skilled nursing facilities and long-term care homes received first doses.

That changed when Berkeley opened its mass vaccination site at Golden Gate Fields in February, ramping up vaccine delivery to essential workers and residents 65 and above. It was the first mass vaccination site in the Bay Area at the time, and was followed closely by large sites at Moscone Center in San Francisco, the Oakland Coliseum and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

To date, Berkeley says it has administered 7,551 first doses. Alameda County has administered another 5,886 doses at Golden Gate Fields. These numbers don’t include doses at Cal, skilled nursing or long-term care facilities and organizations that partner with Alameda County, like LifeLong Medical Care.

“It’s really exciting to be first; it’s also incredibly challenging,” Warhuus said Friday, describing difficult early logistics to book people for their second dose, to make sure residents are getting appointments and to broaden access to vaccination sites.

At this point, the city knows Golden Gate Fields is its site for people with “cars and computers,” Warhuus said, due to its distance and easiest access by drive-through (though it allows walk-up vaccinations). Now, the city is trying to have mobile sites in more pedestrian-friendly places like South Berkeley, and reach residents where they are, like shelters, church parking lots and service hubs.

Working with community stakeholders will also help build trust in the COVID-19 vaccine, Warhuus added.

The city will expand to low-income senior homes in the next two weeks, and this week began offering Golden Gate Fields employees their shots at the mass vaccination site. Places that endured large and small outbreaks, like Golden Gate Fields and local grocery stores, will also be prioritized for vaccinations and possible mobile clinics in the weeks and months to come.

The state consolidated its tier system multiple times after it fell behind neighboring states in vaccine rollout. This was partially due to extensive equity-based tiers, state Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in mid-January.

Berkeley was previously sub-prioritizing groups within state tiers, like offering vaccines first to senior citizens before teachers within Phase 1A, but Warhuus said that practice will mostly come to an end as supply increases and vaccine rollout improves. It will now follow the state’s tiers.

The next group that will get access in California is residents 16-64 with underlying conditions who are at “very highest risk” of dying from COVID-19. This includes people who are pregnant, those with cancer, chronic kidney disease, Down syndrome, sickle cell disease, heart disease, immunocompromised organ donors, severe obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The state will begin vaccinating this group on March 15 and there is no longer a Phase 1C, which previously included those now eligible on March 15, people aged 50 and above, and several groups of essential workers.

Note: When the site first opened on Tuesday, people who were not eligible for the vaccine were able to make appointments due to a glitch in the online system, Warhuus said. CalOES opened vaccines for these residents in preparation after seeing the line. Warhuus initially turned them away, but because the vials were already opened, no more than 20 non-eligible residents were able to get their vaccine. This was not repeated, Warhuus said.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.