At 5:55 a.m. this morning, a woman in her early 70s stood outside the 24th Street BART station to wait for the pop-up COVID-19 testing site that would open an hour later.
“I’m on time,” she said, staking her spot as first in line.
In an effort to capture more essential service workers, UCSF, the Latino Task Force and others debuted a COVID-19 testing site at the 24th Street Mission BART Plaza this morning, and gave 24th Street workers special priority with “fast-track” tickets.
By 7 a.m., when testing commenced, the line stretched down to Capp Street and comprised a steady stream of about 50 people, many of whom were on their way to work. By 2:30 p.m. more than 350 people had been tested, more than 100 than expected and testers were expecting a surge from 3 to 6 p.m. as workers returned on BART and Muni.
The task force ensured that this testing site doesn’t require an appointment or insurance, which they said are barriers that have prevented locals from getting tested in other parts of the city. The hours, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., also aim to rope in commuters on their way to or from work.
Additionally, Jon Jacobo, an organizer with the Latino Task Force and Calle 24, said that the groups posted flyers in the neighborhood and deliberately gave vendors on 24th Street approximately 300 “fast-track” tickets that grant priority access to testing. Not unlike being on the fast-track in Disneyland, holders of these tickets still stand in line, but it’s separate and shorter.
By a little after 7 a.m., four essential workers had already cashed in on their “fast-track” tickets and gotten swabbed before rushing down to catch the train.
“If you have only 15 minutes on the way to work, you can use that ticket, get tested, and be on your way,” Jacobo said.
Participants at the testing site were given the choice this morning to do their own swab collection or to have a health care worker take the sample. The test requires one to stick a swab up one nostril, swirl it around and then repeat the procedure in the second nostril, using the same swab.
“It goes up both nostrils, but up instead of backward,” said Dr. Carina Marquez, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF. The direction, she said, made it less uncomfortable, though those who were tested said they didn’t exactly savor the experience. And by mid-day, the testers stopped offering the option because it delayed the line, taking up to nine minutes when testers could finish in in five minutes.
Volunteers in orange shirts asked visitors questions about contact information and potential symptoms, and also queried why they chose this site instead of others in the city. This type of data is important to inform future COVID-19 studies, Jacobo said.
Three tents are set up and six healthcare workers are supervising or collecting 250 samples today and plan on another 250 on Friday. If more people show up, Marquez said, they will try to accommodate them and will adjust the numbers depending on demand. At present, the project will continue for three weeks at the same time and place on Wednesdays and Fridays until August 14.
If the pilot is successful, Marquez said, “and does prove to be a low-barrier way to bring testing to the community, then we would like to engage and think about it as a sustainable model.”
Jacobo agreed. “It’s not enough to do 5,000 tests a day. You have to test in the right places,” he said.
The city has been testing some 3,000 people a day, and although it said in April that it had the capacity to test 4,300 people a day (and Color at CityTestSF can test another 1,500 a day), it turns out that the city’s own capacity is far less. Like Jacobo, others have questioned the city’s strategy.
So far, this shared vision seems to be panning out: Latinos, essential workers, and commuters showed up today mainly because the obstacles to get tests were essentially nonexistent: the only requirement was that people be 18 or older.
Mirna Hernandez, 60, said she managed to squeeze in a test since it’s so close to her house on Bartlett Street. She starts work cleaning houses at 8:30 a.m. today, and her unpredictable work schedule has prohibited her from getting tested in the past.
“It’s so close, it’s really convenient,” Hernandez said, in Spanish, about the testing site. This was her first COVID-19 test.
She said it was important for her to get tested because, although she wears masks and gloves while cleaning houses, she feels anxious about contracting the virus and possibly spreading it to her grandchildren.
“I enter my customer’s house, they don’t know if I have it,” Hernandez said. “I enter their house, I don’t know if they have it.”
Anica Leon-Weil, a Mission resident and psychologist, said she wanted to get tested before she visits her 75-year-old mom in Santa Cruz this weekend.
“I tried to get an appointment with my doctor, but that was complicated, and the other sites have regulations,” Leon-Weil said. “This site is close by and allows me to get tested before work, which is the biggest thing. I work at nine.”
As businesses reopen, many are requiring employees to be routinely tested.
Eddy, who did not give his last name, showed up at the testing site 7:15 a.m. to get his first COVID-19 test for this reason.
The taqueria he works at on Divisadero Street reopened last week, he said. His bosses are asking all employees to get tested every two weeks and to stay home if they’re sick.
“I didn’t know if I could get tested before, because I didn’t have any symptoms,” he said in Spanish, referring to how some sites limit tests to those only with symptoms or who are essential workers.
Marquez said that with testing extended all over San Francisco, she expected it to take up to four days to get results. People at the testing site are told five days.
Many of those in line agreed that two days was the ideal window, but they said they understood that five days was quick in comparison to other testing sites where the city has recently been having long waits.
Jim Giles and his pajama-clad 8-year-old son stood in line early today in hopes that the two could get quick results. Giles felt aches yesterday and his son had a fever. The pair tried going to a testing site in Hunters Point, but said they were blocked because they didn’t have the right insurance.
A lack of available appointment slots meant Giles had to look elsewhere; he learned about this testing site through the city. However, the site only tests 18-year-olds and above, meaning his 8-year-old could not get tested here.
“You can book an appointment with a family doctor, but the test turnaround seems longer than the city,” Giles said. “I don’t know why testing is such a mess.”
The Latino Task Force will continue to test residents and workers at its 701 Alabama Street testing site on Thursdays. Up until now, the task force has had to lobby hard to get 300 tests for that site.
Today’s site and the Alabama Street site were formed in response to the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has on Latinos and essential workers in the city. Previous studies conducted by UCSF and the Latino Task Force showed that a large number of positive COVID-19 cases are among Latinos earning less than $50,000 a year — who are asymptomatic.
At present, the Latino population accounts for 49.6 percent of the city’s 6,197 cases, while representing only 15 percent of the city’s population.
“It’s becoming personal [for the Latino community],” Jacobo said, who lost two of his relatives in El Salvador to COVID-19 over the weekend. “We all know someone who’s had it. That’s why I feel like people are waiting in line at 6 a.m.”