Free Covid testing fliers. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

The coronavirus testing that will begin in a section of the Mission District on Saturday will be the most ambitious testing effort attempted in San Francisco since the pandemic arrived in early March. UC San Francisco doctors are, indeed, seeking to test as many as 5,700 residents in the densely populated census tract to learn how the virus spreads. 

But with the testing set to begin this weekend, researchers and volunteers are working against the clock, and it remains unclear if a neighborhood heavily populated with undocumented and working residents will show up in the numbers scientists need. Reactions from community members living in the census tract ranged from excitement to reluctance. 

“What would I do if I tested positive?” asked a woman named Kimberly, who lives in a studio apartment with her mother and uncle. “My mother is working and my uncle is working two days a week. They would have to stop if I tested positive.” Later today, she said that she would take the test, but her uncle said he would only be interested in knowing if he had already had the virus. 

Others said they would gladly take the opportunity. 

Armando, who is now unemployed, said he had not heard about the tests — but he and his wife would take them. “I don’t think we are sick. We don’t go anywhere, we don’t see anyone,” he said, adding that he plans to show up to the Cesar Chavez testing site on one of the testing days, though he had no Internet connection to register. 

Members of the Latino COVID-19 Task Force, a coalition of citywide Latino organizations that partnered with UCSF on the effort, said volunteers have been going door-to-door and educating people of the study’s existence — and why they should participate. 

Jon Jacobo, a member of the task force, said he’s heard a range of concerns. Some have worried it may affect their immigration status, hinder their ability to work, or are generally skeptical of the government. But he’s emphasizing during his outreach that the initiative will not hurt a person’s chances for citizenship and will offer support for people who test positive. 

This isn’t just a ‘get tested and you figure it out,’” he said. “This is a ‘get tested and we’ll help you out.’” 

Support services for individuals who do test positive are yet to be determined, he said. But he noted it could take the form of groceries, hand sanitizer, face masks, and other resources. And of course, UCSF will monitor people who test positive and provide retesting, he said. 

At a press conference on Monday, Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, also noted general skepticism toward the government in the city’s Latinx community. A lot of Latinx patients, he said, are unwilling to participate in contact tracing and contact investigations.

“It is possible that they are fearful of local government, concerned about immigration, or simply don’t have all the information they need to be comfortable,” he said.

The area code 94110 — which covers a majority of the Mission District — has 166 reported COVID-19 cases, the highest number in any San Francisco area code, according to data released by the Department of Public Health on Monday. The Mission had the 4th highest number of cases per 10,000 residents. 

The purpose of the study, said Dr. Gabriel Chamie, a professor of infectious disease at UCSF, is to “understand transmission dynamics of COVID within communities and not rely only on clinic-based data.”

In particular, scientists want to learn how many people might be spreading the virus with mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in a dense area — and Chamie said he and his colleagues would “absolutely” be breaking down and publicizing data revealing whether test recipients were asymptomatic or not. 

The testing will help to identify positive and asymptomatic cases, Chamie continued, and work with those people to take the necessary precautions such as self-isolation, so they do not spread the virus further.

Scientists were intentional in choosing their area of study. Census tract 229.01 — an expanse that runs from 23rd to Cesar Chavez streets, and from South Van Ness to Harrison — is one of the densest in the city. It is also 58 percent Latino, the Mission’s highest concentration of Latinos. 

Doctors will be conducting tests for the direct presence of COVID-19, as well as “PCR tests,” which determine whether a person has been infected in the past by detecting the presence of antibodies. The direct test is a swab on the throat and in the nose. And the antibody test will use a small drop of blood from a person’s finger. If a person tests positive, he or she will be notified within 72 hours. 

“For those who are symptomatic, we’re going to prioritize their tests being run first,” Chamie said. But UCSF can readily process the 1,500 anticipated tests a day, with 6,000 over four days being the goal. 

Jacobo acknowledged the project’s ambition. He understands that an effort like this would ordinarily take six months to carry out. “We’re doing it in six days.”  

Roberto Hernandez, another member of the Latino COVID-19 Task Force, said the group had around 16 volunteers as of Monday afternoon. “We need more than 16,” he said, explaining that the goal was to reach 1,500 households before testing ended next Tuesday. 

To those who are skeptical, Hernandez asks: “Do you want to be six feet under or six feet above?”  

“They get it right away,” he said. 

Mayra, a Latina who lives in the study area and has a background in urban planning, said she needs no convincing. “Part of the key to managing this is to have a clear sense of how many people are affected, and without us having that information it becomes difficult and dangerous,” she said. 

She’ll be encouraging others to participate, she said. “I wish more people had free access to this.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. What about Dimagi? What is their involvement? What about the ties of UCSF docs to Big Pharma i.e. Luetkemeyer’s ties to Gilead, Merck, etc. This has to be made completely public. These docs stand to profit off a vaccine that gets developed by testing people in the Mission. Dimagi has direct links to USAID. What USAID has done throughout Latin America and the Caribbean is atrocious. Please look into this.

    What will happen to the info turned over by Mission residents? Who gets it? Who stores it? For how long? Will it be used for vaccine development?

    1. Hey there.

      While transparency is great, unfounded allegations regarding individual UCSF doctors profiteering off the pandemic is taking things too far.


      1. These are not unfounded allegations, these are questions. That’s how medical research works. Dr. Luetkemeyer has done quite a bit of research sponsored by i.e. GlaxoSmithKline, Gilead, and Merck. She has participated in studies that led to the publication of papers co-authored by people who work for Gilead. Most if not all of the UCSF doctors Mission Local’s articles have mentioned are undoubtedly in the same boat. A simple Google search reveals this to be true. UCSF does massive amounts of research and makes massive amounts of money from that research. The same holds true for doctors.

        The obvious response to your assertion: all UCSF Doctors make public all of their prior dealing with pharmaceutical companies., the research they’ve done, who it was sponsored by, and what, if anything, they made from it. If none of them made anything AND if they companies they did the research for didn’t make anything, well then things don’t look quite as dire. But that still leaves Dimagi.

        1. Bigfoot at this point and time the objective is to save lives and get everyone tested. Who cares who makes money off of it or who paid for it. It’s being done and may save even your own life. Why be negative about it?

          1. Asking for transparency is asking for transparency, you can call it whatever you want. As Alan Wu, pathologist at UCSF recently stated, “I think that to do mass screening is premature,” said Wu. “There needs to be some plan to determine what is the goal and objective of doing such a thing.”

            From the same article: “Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized only four antibody tests for COVID-19, but it has also loosened restrictions to allow companies to sell antibody tests that have not been scientifically reviewed by the FDA, as long as the companies validate their own tests and notify the FDA. More than 90 companies now have tests on the market, but it’s not clear how well they work and how they compare to each other.”

            “At UCSF, several teams are working with companies to validate new SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests by providing blood samples from COVID-19 patients collected throughout the course of their illness.”

            What companies? How might or will they profit from your blood?