City’s actions come with mixed messages on gatherings and testing as hospitalizations put SF on COVID-19 watchlist

San Francisco joined 30 other counties today on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, a development that means indoor malls and non-essential offices will close as of Monday, Mayor London Breed announced at a press conference today. 

At the same time, she said, healthcare providers will be ordered on Monday to do same-day testing for their members. 

“People are tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us,” said Breed, who was joined by Director of Public Health Grant Colfax at the 11 a.m. briefing, in which they said the county’s hospitalizations had put San Francisco on the watchlist. 

“We were down to as low as 26 people,” Breed said. “We’re now back up to 80 people in the hospital.” Already on Wednesday, Colfax painted a dire picture of what a growing infection rate could mean for hospitalizations by the fall. He said on Friday that, since July 1, the average age of patients with COVID has been 41 years old. 

Testing will help prevent the spread of the virus and, up until now, the city has been doing 60 percent of all COVID-19 testing, Breed said.

“We need private care providers to step up,” Breed said. In addition, she said, “private hospitals must provide testing to asymptomatic workers in jobs with risk of exposure.”

 “As demand grows in the current surge,” she said. “access to appointments is getting harder and test results are taking longer. While testing challenges are a national issue as a result of the lack of federal leadership, we need to improve the situation where some San Franciscans are waiting a week or more for appointments. And sometimes as long as that for their results.” 

It is unclear why those waits are occurring since the city’s testing capacity is 5,800 tests and at present, it is doing 2,599 a day – using less than half of its capacity.  

At times, the mayor and Colfax seemed to deliver mixed messages on testing and gatherings. 

 The mayor spoke at length today, for example, about a city worker who was exposed to COVID-19 because of a roommate who went on a camping trip, relaxed and was not taking safety precautions. Breed and Colfax later mentioned barbecues and other gatherings as problematic.  

“We know that many of our new cases can be traced back to social gatherings of families and friends,” said Dr. Colfax. “Think about that. The birthday party or the barbecue can spread the virus and get many people sick.”

Nevertheless, the city has expanded outdoor dining on Valencia Street starting next week, and a reporter at the briefing pointed out that the chairs have been returned to a gathering spot in Noe Valley.  

Colfax responded to a question on the chairs by saying that “it’s very clear that outdoor activity is much safer than indoor activity … And we know people need to get outside for their mental health or physical health. We can’t stay cooped up inside for long periods of time.” 

To socialize safely, Colfax and the mayor urged masks and distancing.

On testing, Colfax reiterated that the Latinx community makes up about 50 percent of the COVID-19 cases, but only 15 percent of the population.  “Another group, workers who must leave their homes and take more risk, are more at risk of getting infected and are getting sick in greater numbers,” he said. 

He added that in the past two weeks, the city has expanded low-barrier testing in the Mission District, Bayview, Tenderloin, Potrero Hill and Sunnydale neighborhoods. 

However, leaders of the Latino Task Force for COVID-19 said yesterday that they had to mount a campaign to get 300 tests; the Department of Health wanted to give them only 100 tests. By the end of the day, they had too few tests and had to turn away 30 to 50 people – in the exact population that Colfax wants to test.

In response to a question on the Mission testing site, Colfax said, “The truth is, we need to continue to expand our testing, particularly in the Mission. …We are continuing to build that capacity.” 

The Latino Task Force said Thursday that it could get 1,000 people to the site for testing and, while the city does seem to have the supplies, it’s unclear why they aren’t being distributed. At its present capacity and testing, the city has 3,201 unused tests a day. 

“As a planner, I am going to focus on where the fire is, and the Mission is Ground Zero,” said Roberto Hernandez late Thursday evening. “Why can’t you put resources to focus on the Mission? It’s insane.”

Colfax said the order to private providers to test should allow the city to focus more on those in need. He said that 95 percent of San Franciscans have some form of health coverage.  

“We will continue to focus on equity and the communities that are most affected by the pandemic,” he said. “We are working with community leaders to expand testing, outreach and partnerships. We are conducting extensive multilingual multimedia campaigns to reach people in their own neighborhoods and languages.” 

For now, however, the city is falling short. Its main site for testing registration offers a language switcher for the landing page, but reverts back to English when a visitor attempts to sign up. The city declined to comment on why this hasn’t been updated for non-English speakers. 

We attend these pressers, visit testing sites and keep you informed. Keep us at work and support Mission Local today.

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor at Berkeley’s J-school since 1990. My earlier career was at The New York Times working for the business, foreign and city desks. As an old...

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10 Comments

  1. So I am currently pretty sick. I had a test with my PCP earlier this week, which was negative, but with the warning that my viral load may have been too low to detect for now. Fingers crossed but I’m progressively more symptomatic.

    I find it frustrating that my family has been obsessively careful, wearing masks, hardly going out, wiping surfaces, hand washing, only grocery shopping every 10 days or so, and only shopping at one store. We never eat restaurant food. We have not seen our friends and family in almost 5 months. Very, very careful.

    The doctor told me, in her growing experience, that we can be as careful as we want to be, but if those around us are not careful, we are at risk. My neighbors have not been careful. The NY Times today said ~68% of Mission residents say they will wear a mask at all.

    And so, I am sick and praying my spouse and children do not also get sick. Not because we weren’t careful, but because our neighbors don’t care about anyone but themselves.

    Please stop telling readers that SF public health law is a choice or a matter of risk tolerance. SIP is a set of actual laws.

    We all need to step up and do better, not just some of us.

    I now pray for my family and for my community, and now for myself. We are in big trouble if so few of us are willing to do the right thing.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story.
      Hang in there.
      And – well … your observations match what I’ve seen.
      Obviously we’re not all in this together.
      All for one and one for all?
      Not in this town.
      Everyone for themselves.
      It’s America – you’re free – sort of – at least to be an idiot.

  2. Roberto, you’ve been driving the Mayor around in your beautiful cars, You are the Mayor of the Mission, please use your great oratory and convincing skills and some of that access with the City Hall mayor, things are serious.

  3. I think it’s also important to note that the higher rates for the Latino community could also be due to cultural differenceS. What I mean by this, is culturally, they have a family-centric attitude where big parties and gathering are a part of the norm. I’ve seen many a bbq/large parties when I take my walks near candlestick park. Hardly anyone wears masks, and they are definitely not 6ft apart. The income/access inequality causes them to have been working as essential workers, and then they spread it within their community due to this gatherings. Not sure what the solution is, but it’s something worth looking at…

  4. Hope everyone stays safe & healthy—but seriously Lydia—-go to the 24th St BART and there missionaries shouting into mics and walking right up to people with their pamphlets WITHOUT MASKS. I don’t care what anyone is selling, my point remains __NO DISTANCING & NO MASKS. I alerted the police a couple of weeks ago but I doubt they can have a full-time guard out there. Lydia–I’d look into this, many thanks!

  5. Lydia,

    Thank you for your reporting. A very useful thing which you might write up for us all would be:

    – how specifically does a county land on the watch list
    – how specifically does it get off the watch list

    Since various things will shut down whenever the county is on the watchlist for 3 consecutive days (right?) it would be great to understand how that process works, and whether you need 14 consecutive days, or some other criteria, for those shutdowns to be rescinded. Since you know about such things and explain things so clearly, might you write a piece on this? My neighbors and I are all confused.

    Thank you for all your work!

    1. CA DPH website has the background information –
      https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/CountyMonitoringDataStep1.aspx

      We meet the case rate criteria for elevated disease transmission – more than 100 cases per 100,000 population in last 14 days. From Jul 1 to Jul 14, our case rate was 131. The case rate in previous 14 day period Jun 17 to Jun 30 was 94. Going back further, the case rate from Jun 3 to Jun 16 was 43.

      Table shows criteria for CA counties on watch list –
      https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/COVID19CountyDataTable.aspx

      SF numbers are not in table yet but SF has asterisk denoting “newly meeting threshold”.

      Response to watch list (scroll down to San Francisco) –
      https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/CountyMonitoringDataStep2.aspx

      It does not appear that a shutdown is automatic after being on watch list for 3 days. There have been counties on watch list for much longer than 3 days even weeks ago. The key appears to be that the county must have a response plan to being on the watch list.

      Our case rate was expected to increase with re-opening, but how much it would increase depended on how well people followed the rules on wearing masks and social distancing. The how well part could not be known when we first re-opened. Now clearly we see that we need to do better if we want to stay open.

      SF response plan says all the right things – increasing community outreach, enforcement, etc. We’ll see how well he plan is executed. The rate of increase appears to have slowed in the last week which is promising. Look for case rate increase to slow further and flatten. If it doesn’t, we might have to shut down again.

  6. 49.1 % of the Covid 19 cases in the city belong to the Latin community. I drive down Mission St., shops are wide open and jammed packed, restaurants have people inside and out, and very few masks are worn
    It looks as if nothing is going on in this world. Why the city isn’t up the asses of these business owners is beyond me. Just another example of piss poor management of the liberals running this city into the ground

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