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.