Free Covid testing fliers. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

While Democratic leaders push for a nationwide testing strategy — and states scout for or start producing elements like the elusive swabs on their own — San Francisco’s test capacity appears to have increased substantially in the last week. But actual testing remains far below the minimum of 1,216 tests a day necessary to begin considering safely reopening this city.

That figure comes from a Harvard study on what is needed to reopen the country. It estimates a minimum of 152 tests per 100,000 residents.

The number of residents tested per day in San Francisco has remained low, with a high of 532 tests administered on April 15, which dropped back to 260 on April 20.

There are signs, however, that testing will soon begin in earnest. Public health officials affirmed to Mission Local that they have have tests in hand to serve more than 5,000 residents in the Mission this coming weekend; Mayor London Breed on Wednesday announced testing centers for all essential employees — public or private sector — and envisions handling 1,000 a day; and UCSF reports that it has just received a shipment of swabs from a donor in China. 

One Medical, a private group with offices in 12 major U.S. cities, has offered to open up testing for anyone. It’s unclear how much the latter will cost. 

The low testing numbers to date likely reflect the decision by most providers to minister to only people with visible symptoms. At the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, for example, Brenda Story, the executive director, said they first screen over the phone and then once again  screen when a patient arrives at the drive-through testing site set up in the clinic’s parking lot. Although they now have the capacity to test 100 patients a week, they tested only 20 last week, she said. 

Storey said her clinic could ramp up to testing 200 patients a week when more supplies become available. At present, the clinic buys its kits from LabCorp at $50 each. Earlier, LabCorp would only sell her 50 a week, but that doubled last week.

Regardless, supplies remain constrained — and nowhere near the level experts say are needed before the city can safely re-open.  

Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, sees the problem of testing kits as a logistical one. “This whole thing is about time and inventory,” he said.

Noting that a sudden, unforeseeable spike in demand for virtually anything would create problems with supply, he described the problem in practical terms. “Why can’t we just turn the knob up a notch to make more? I don’t know exactly how the manufacturing process works. But you need people, you need transportation, you need warehouses, you need transport medium.”

Handling all of that in-house is exactly what New York City has decided to do, and it expects to produce 50,000 test kits per week starting in May, Mayor Bill De Blasio said during a virtual press conference last week

For his part, Gov. Gavin Newsom created the California Coronavirus Testing Task Force in early April  to “improve the supply chain and enable new, high-quality tests to launch in California as soon as possible.”

At his daily briefing on April 21, Newsom reported some success; testing jumped from 2,000 tests processed a day to 14,500.

The task force’s goal now is to reach 25,000 tests a day by the end of the month, Newsom said. 

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  1. You did not mention that nursing home patients and folks in similiar care settings are dying by the thousands in California due to lack of aggressive testing. Staff who do not have symptoms usually bring it in and it can spread like a conflagration. We see that in Central Gardens here in SF and it will be a short time for many more nursing homes to be affected unless aggressive testing of asymptomatic staff and patients is instituted. The only reason not to do this is the “supply chain.” Well, it looks like this is being solved. Los Angeles is leading the way in deaths (https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/SNFsCOVID_19.aspx). Nursing Homes are like cruise ships but no vacation here: not ramping up testing in nursing homes and similiar care facilities when the tests are actually available is tantamount to saying that these lives are not worthwhile. What does this say about our priorities?