Dr. Diane Havlir, Jon Jacobo and Dr. Carina Marquez at the 24th Street BART Station before Thanksgiving.

While most of us sleep in Sunday morning, dozens of community volunteers, UCSF doctors and local activists from four different San Francisco neighborhoods will already be up, pitching large white tents, setting up Covid-19 testing tables and checking supplies for what will be the largest effort to date to reach vulnerable communities in San Francisco. 

Each site — in the Mission at 24th Street BART; in the Excelsior at the Crocker Amazon parking lot; in the Bayview at Mendell Plaza; and in the Tenderloin on the 100 block of Golden Gate Ave. — will have the capacity to test 500 residents a day. In three days, the UCSF researchers hope to test 6,000 residents. 

Already, in a trial run at the 24th Street BART for the three days before Thanksgiving, more than 1,500 residents stood in line for tests.  Every day, site leaders said, they had to turn people away. At the end of this campaign, some 7,500 residents will have been tested.

The enormity of the project cannot be overstated. The three days that begin today will represent more than double the testing done in a week at all of the city’s pop-ups, according to data from the Department of Public Health.  Each day, the campaign hopes to test 2,000 residents. That compares to between 2,500 and 3,000 tests a week at the city’s pop-ups in November.  

As has been the case in three earlier studies, the campaign is under the umbrella of Unidos En Salud — United in Health — along with Dr. Diane Havlir, the chief of UCSF’s division of HIV/AIDS, infectious disease, and global medicine, who has focused on Covid-19 since March, and the Latino Task Force. 

This time, however, researchers and community activists are reaching beyond the Mission and engaging with residents in three other neighborhoods to help guide and lead local sites. 

This “is by far the most I have had to juggle … in all aspects; the wrangling of city departments (for resources), to ensuring we have the right community members to lead the sites,” Jon Jacobo, the head of the Latino Task Force’s executive committee, said Friday. 

Locals can make the difference between a successful testing campaign and one that fails to draw residents. That’s been the problem at some of the pop-ups run by the Department of Public Health, as DPH officials have acknowledged in weekly meetings with community groups.  

The twice-a-week Department of Public Health pop-up at the Bayview Opera House, for example, often fails to use all of its allotment of 250 tests, according to DPH data. “It has no life, no soul to it,” said Jacobo. “It feels like you just put it there to say you have it there.”  

UCSF and the Latino Task Force don’t want that to happen Sunday at the Unidos testing site a block away at Mendell Plaza, said Jacobo.  To make sure it has a local accent, they are working with Raymond Whitley, a Bayview native and 31-year-old violence prevention worker who is co-lead on the testing site.  He knows how to get people there.  “He’s already found three DJs” for Mendell Plaza, Jacobo said. 

In the Tenderloin, where the Latino Task Force is partnering with St. Anthony’s, the team leader will be Susana Rojas, who has been one of the key figures in developing the task force’s wellness model. She also happens to live three blocks away from the Tenderloin testing site. She knows that neighborhood as well as she knows the Mission. 

The outreach efforts by the Latino Task Force started on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and will continue through the campaign.

Armed in each neighborhood with high-risk census tracts, volunteers have gone door to door distributing flyers. Jim Stearns, a political consultant, also offered up phone lists. In each neighborhood, local supervisors have helped point outreach workers in the right direction, offering  guidance that might not be apparent in census tract maps, Jacobo said — “like pockets of people we might miss,” he said, such as a cluster of Latinx residents who are not in a high-density census tract.   

This time the Department of Public Health, which has played a nominal effort in earlier Unidos campaigns, has been more active, pulling permits for the sites and printing thousands of flyers for the outreach efforts, Jacobo said. 

The goal is to see if a massive education effort, testing, and quick isolation can help reduce the current surge in cases. Testers are also collecting more data to find out who is getting sick and why. 

When Havlir presented her slides to the group earlier this month, one stated that they could “Either wait and watch” what would happen over the Thanksgiving holidays, “or act to mitigate the surge.”

Havlir is not one to wait and watch. As a result, testing began at 24th Street before Thanksgiving to find covid-positive residents to isolate before it was too late. Jacobo’s cousin was one resident who discovered he had the virus.  

The pre-Thanksgiving results have not yet been announced. At present, the city’s positivity rate is 2.16 percent, but Latinx positivity rates have consistently been significantly higher. Earlier testing campaigns in April and August showed positivity rates between 9 and 11 percent. Latinx residents account for 47 percent of the city’s cases and 24 percent of its deaths, although they represent only 15 percent of the city’s population.

The campaign also offers an opportunity to do more testing of the Binax rapid test produced by Abbott Laboratories. An earlier study at the 16th Street BART plaza found that the Binax rapid test, which gives results in 15 minutes, offered promising initial results.

At 24th Street, the researchers are once again testing the Binax rapid test against the PCR test. But, this time around, the number of people who will be tested is much higher — some 3,000, compared to fewer than 900 at 16th Street. It will be the largest test of Binax in San Francisco, Havlir said. 

Follow our coverage of the campaign’s first day here.

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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.

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  1. With the current sharp increase in cases it is very important to find out” Who is getting sick and why“ Where can I find this info?

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