Underneath the white medical tents at the 24th Mission BART Plaza, researchers and community organizers grabbed faux syringes containing jello. “Come on, did you get your shot?” Susy Rojas called out to the masked partygoers.
“Yes!” was the resounding reality of the UCSF doctors and community activists with the Latino Task Force, who allied last April as Unidos en Salud (United in Health).
It was a pandemic-borne partnership, and on Sunday, April 25, the partnership celebrated its one-year anniversary with a party featuring edible, non-alcoholic “vaccine shots,” a raffle, posters featuring volunteers like Rojas, and cakes decorated with the Unidos en Salud logo and a green caricature of the coronavirus.
Volunteers recalled a draining year that required meetings from morning to night, working through weekends, and too much coffee. Even amid the party’s blaring music, attendees chattered often about epidemiology. Since its initiation with a mass Covid-19 testing study a year ago, Unidos en Salud has scaled up to run a neighborhood Covid-19 vaccination site and a testing site that run each day of the week.
To date, Unidos en Salud has administered more than 16,500 shots to locals, 66 percent of whom identify as Latinx and almost one-third of whom live in the 94110 zip code.
It’s been a long time since that initial April study, which was spearheaded by UCSF professor of medicine Dr. Diane Havlir and the newly formed Latino Task Force, a coalition of neighborhood community groups. Havlir saw the need for the study after noticing that a disproportionate number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients identified as Latinx.
That April study tested more than 4,000 people in certain census tracts of the Mission, thanks to community members knocking on hundreds of doors, and doctors focusing their research on Latinx and essential workers in the neighborhood.
Though UCSF researchers had the technical and medical knowledge of infectious disease, they understood they couldn’t reach their goal on their own. Meetings at Brava Theater required both groups to do a lot of listening. UCSF provided technical and infectious-disease knowledge; community organizers knew the streets and its residents. “Like our partners, we came to the table with humility and mutual respect,” Havlir recalled in an email to Mission Local, looking back at the April study.
The data they collected shocked the city, and definitively proved that Latinx and essential workers were the most impacted by the virus. “We showed that half of the persons with COVID had no symptoms, but still had levels of virus similar to persons with symptoms — emphasizing the need for masking and frequent testing,” Havlir said. “This information was a call to action for all of us.”
Following the four-day study that left researchers “exhausted,” trust had been cemented between the white coats and the neighborhood, said Dr. Carina Marquez, a UCSF assistant professor of medicine.
“In the April study, we were just rallying and sort of getting things done for that moment, but throughout the process, I felt like that bond would last,” Marquez recalled.
Former UCSF HIV nurse Diane Jones, who built an activist reputation partly for her role in the creation of the Women’s Building in the late ‘70s, further bridged the gap between a medical institution and wary community members.
That relationship carried the unique coalition through the following months, as Unidos en Salud not only conducted multiple studies and established pop-up Covid-19 testing sites throughout the summer and holidays, but also introduced new ventures aimed at addressing community needs. Unidos en Salud was one of the first local sites to implement Binax rapid Covid-19 testing and to roll out in-home testing for the entire household of an infected person.
Susana Rojas, an outreach lead for Unidos en Salud and leader in the Latino Task Force, said in spring, 2020, she had no idea that Unidos en Salud would accomplish so much. “For us, it wasn’t about being the innovators, but just supporting and making sure our community had what they needed. Anything else is secondary.”
At the same time, both UCSF researchers and Latino Task Force leaders utilized the studies to advocate for policy change. Havlir presented the rapid test data as a key tool in maximizing isolation periods and evidence for paid sick leave, and researchers began extending test site hours beyond 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to increase day laborers’ access to resources.
Along with others, Jon Jacobo, the health chair for the Latino Task Force, consistently advocated for more testing resources in the city’s southeastern sector, where the virus was spreading fast. At first, the Department of Public Health expected to lead and dismissed organizers’ notes “as any good bureaucrat does,” Jacobo recalled. In his view, this led to the department’s initial failure in equitable testing and outreach.
“I think of all we had to do, the level of pressure we had to create,” Jacobo said. “There were times where we had to show leadership at the Department of Public Health, that either we got more covid tests, or we would have a protest, or go to the media. We really had to posture that way.”
That’s in the past, though, he said. The health department’s presence at neighborhood test and vaccine sites became commonplace. In fact, Dr. Jonathan Fuchs, a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF and the director of the Center for Learning and Innovation at DPH, was talking business with Jacobo during the anniversary party. “Now it works so well that, just here while we’re getting cake, I’m able to talk to a DPH person and say, ‘Hey, for this thing we have coming up in May, I have an idea,’” Jacobo said, referring to Fuchs. “And they say, ‘Oh, that’s great, let’s present this.’”
Fuchs agreed, and said models like Unidos en Salud allowed DPH to learn how to “influence our strategy in identifying where the gaps are,” which later brought resources to other underserved areas, like the Excelsior.
For Susy Rojas, who now heads the Community Wellness Teams that brings food and other resources to covid-infected individuals, the relationship between UCSF and Mission activists has permanently and positively changed to a “tight-knit family.”
No one knows how long the alliance will continue, but it’s clear it’ll be needed for the near future, as not everyone has yet been vaccinated.
“It feels a lot more hopeful,” Rojas said. “It’s just heartwarming to see how many people came together from all walks of life — some of them to help a community they didn’t really grow up in.”