The line for the Latino Task Force and the city's Department of Public Health pilot Covid-19 pop-up on Dec. 23, 2020. Photo by Annika Hom Dec. 23, 2020.

The San Francisco Department of Health’s decision to run a testing site the two days before Christmas with the Latino Task Force was months in the making — often painful months of surging virus infections for the Latinx community. 

And, if the two-day pop-up at the 24th Street BART Plaza goes well, both DPH and the Latino Task Force would like to see it continue.

While this development is welcomed and applauded, Jon Jacobo, who heads the health committee for the Latino Task Force, has reiterated throughout the pandemic that he felt like the house was on fire and DPH was speeding right past it. He’s optimistic, however, that the new collaboration promises a more permanent change. 

We’ve written about the Latino Task Force’s formation, and its success has served the Mission District well, but it also demonstrates how critical strong local advocacy groups can be if the city fails to mete out resources equitably. And that is especially clear in testing, where sustained pressure — not the data and the science — appears to be the elixir for moving public health officials to increase testing where case rates are high.

Indeed, the Department of Public Health’s newly released testing data shows a stark picture of how testing resources have consistently — over the last nine months — failed to reach the most impacted communities and neighborhoods. While the Mission’s testing rate has improved modestly, and is likely to continue to improve if the pop-up becomes permanent, other neighborhoods are virtual testing deserts. 

The neighborhoods with the highest positivity rates in the last two months — Bayview-Hunters Point (5.9 percent), Visitacion Valley (5.79 percent), Portola (4.6 percent), and Excelsior (4.32 percent) — rank at the bottom in testing rates, according to the new DPH tracker. Of the 39 neighborhoods listed in the city’s data tracker, Bayview ranks 19th, Visitacion Valley 35th, Portola 31st and the Excelsior 27th. The Mission’s most recent positivity rate is 3.53 percent, making it the eighth highest. It ranks 14th in testing. 

The Mission is the neighborhood with the highest number of cases, adding 672 new cases between November 20 and December 19 for a  total of 2,698 cases. The total number of cases becomes more important when the rate of reproduction, known as the R number, is above 1, as it has been for two months. Essentially, more covid-positive residents means more reproduction, and more spread of the virus.

Peter Khoury, a data scientist who lives in the Mission District, plotted the DPH neighborhood testing and positivity data over time and more recently. “The city has only moved very marginally to those places,” where outbreaks are happening, he said.

Scatter plot showing overall testing disparity. By Peter Khoury.
Scatter plot of more recent testing data from DPH. Created by Peter Khoury.

Of the top six neighborhoods with the highest testing rates — Potrero Hill, Mission Bay, Financial District/South Beach, Castro, Marina, and Haight Ashbury, only the Marina has a positivity rate above 2 percent — 2.2 percent

Much of this testing is likely done by private providers, who account for 45 percent of all tests reported by DPH. But for months, a large part of the city’s testing resources have gone to such low-risk residents, the so-called “worried wealthy.” 

The city has not separated out ethnicity or neighborhood data from its own testing sites, but the data we’ve been able to obtain shows that, during the course of the pandemic, more than 70 percent of the DPH tests were done at the Embarcadero and SoMa sites, where virtually any city resident or worker could get an appointment. And, throughout that time, the positivity rates at those sites remained low, according to researchers.  

While the city closed the SoMa site and moved its 500 tests a day to the Alemany Farmer’s Market in mid-November, 1,700 tests a day have remained at the Embarcadero. The city’s most recent data for October and November shows that the Embarcadero site accounted for 68 percent of the city-controlled tests despite a positivity rate of 1.18 percent. 

DPH’s recent decision to collaborate with the Latino Task Force recognized that disparity and moved, at least for the moment, 700 of its 1,700 tests a day at the Embarcadero site to the Mission pop-up. 

If the site becomes permanent, it will make a substantial difference in who DPH is reaching with its testing resources. Already, earlier UCSF/Latino Task Force testing campaigns have demonstrated that BART Plaza testing at 24th Street captures a majority of Latinx testers, most of whom are low-wage workers.

However, the DPH data also suggests that the city will have to look beyond the Mission and add more low-barrier testing in places like Bayview, Visitacion Valley and Portola. Over eight weeks in October and November, DPH provided a total of roughly 4,000 tests to each of those three high-risk neighborhoods. That compares to 108,494 tests over the same period at the Embarcadero, where testers were low-risk.  

Tracy Gallardo, who is on the executive committee of the Latino Task Force and works as an aide to District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, said the community groups in the Bayview have only recently had the bandwidth to do more advocacy on testing. “They were all putting out fires,” said Gallardo.

Moreover, she said, the Latino Task Force had the advantage of being Latinos focused on Latinos, a population has had the dubious distinction of accounting for 45 to 50 percent of the city’s Covid-19 cases. 

And, despite seeing these numbers every day — and reading the research reports produced from the UCSF/Latino Task Force’s testing campaigns — it has taken the city’s health department a full nine months to even begin moving a larger portion of its testing resources into the Mission. 

Month to month testing and positivity. Source: DPH.

The recent collaboration, Jacobo said, came after a week of tirades provoked by a Mission Local article pointing out the Embarcadero’s low positivity, but high testing numbers. “I was on one for a few days about the inequities,” he said. 

Gallardo said that Bayview’s population is represented by strong Black, Asian and Samoan community organizations, but did not have one collective group that acted in unison. 

Visitacion Valley also has a mixed population, with many seniors. To get testing there during an outbreak over the summer, it took intervention by UCSF’s Dr. Kim Rhoads and Dr. Monique LeSarre, the executive director of the Rafiki Coalition, a center for health and wellness in Bayview. LeSarre’s organization was one of ten organizations that the city recently funded for work to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19.

While the new funds offer some hope, as of now, the year of the pandemic will end with high rates of infection and relatively little testing in most of the city’s high-risk neighborhoods.

Annika Hom contributed to this story.

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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. From Bloomberg:

    ‘“The actual number of people living here is way different from the census count,” said Jacobo. One three-bedroom apartment that was meant to be housing five people contained 30, who were using the bedrooms around the clock, in shifts.’

    I thought the angle here was that the community organizers were in and of the community, so close to it such that it could represent the community?

    Just as our generation organized to fight HIV/AIDS, my grandparents’ generation organized to put an end to the squalid tenements that they’d lived in as immigrants.

    Yet here we are with a Mission crawling with funded community organizers, housing organizers who proclaim connection, yet the density of crowding amongst working people, immigrants, in the Mission comes as news to them?

    One did not need to go door to door to know that this crowding existed, if not to the fullest extent, back when the pandemic began and the numbers began to trend towards Latinx in the Mission.

    Disconnected from the community, unable to leverage positions of power within government to articulate a timely response, unable to mitigate residential crowding and survival pressures due to lack of income support as risk factors such that the only option is putting yourself out there as an expendable worker, our neighbors are on their own facing terrible choices.

    The increasing scale of the problem dwarfs any minor nibbling at the edges in response by those who are paid to administer gentrification, displacement, and in this case, expendable workers.

    The only difference between this and the Tuskeegee experiments is one of neglect, not intentionality. Low income communities of color are left by neglect to their own devices while facing the choice between economic and health crisis when there is sufficient power, resources and knowledge to put a quick end to it.

    That’s what history is going to record.