In many ways, it felt like the Twilight Zone.
I don’t remember the last time I saw the McDonald’s parking lot that crowded. I mean, people were elbow-to-elbow and shaking hands. Hugs were offered, then accepted, then offered to someone else. People smiled, and you could see their teeth!
Unidos en Salud, the partnership between University of California San Francisco and the Latino Task Force, threw a thank-you bash for its top donors and partners on Wednesday at its Capp Street vaccination site.
And there were reasons to give thanks. The city revelled in the fact that 80 percent of the eligible population has been inoculated. The most vulnerable were attended to quickly and empathetically, in large part thanks to groups like Unidos en Salud. Yet they, too, got help from district supervisors, BART and, as time went on, the Department of Public Health and Mayor London Breed.
I arrived just before the speeches began. The mood was giddy; people constantly remarked how nice it was to see their colleagues’ pearly whites.
As I waited for the speakers, I scrutinized the Very Important Zoom Talking Heads — the top city officials, doctors — and I can confirm they do, indeed, have bodies attached below the neck. Some of them were much, much taller than I had imagined. (Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to play basketball against Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo. She wasn’t even wearing heels!)
I gawked at this scene of casual celebration as if it were a majestic wildlife moment I serendipitously happened upon. But to those who watched closely behind the gates this past year, the achievements they were celebrating that night were truly magical.
“This was a Category 5 hurricane in terms of the impact that we felt this was going to have for our community,” said Jon Jacobo, the health committee chair for the Latino Task Force, who was co-emceeing that night. The health disparities they’d predicted at the beginning, “would be true.”
The Mission District was hit hard by Covid-19 — it was one of the city’s epicenters for covid transmission and cases. Many Latinx residents also live here, and at one point in San Francisco, Latinx residents accounted for almost half of the city’s cases, despite making up only 15 percent of the population. Compared to other races, Latinx in San Francisco were five times more likely to get the disease, Mission Local found.
After witnessing this at San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. Diane Havlir, a professor of HIV and infectious diseases at UCSF, pitched a mass testing campaign in the Mission District in April, 2020.
“I remember in the hallway when Diane passed by. ‘So what do you think about testing 6,000 people in the census tract?’” recounted Dr. Carina Marquez, an assistant professor of medicine at UCSF.
Marquez wondered how they’d pull it off; others did, too. That encounter predated public testing sites, and at that point, even doctors couldn’t get their hands on enough tests. Nevertheless, Marquez said, “‘Yeah ‘I’m in.’”
On April 1, 2020, Havlir called Diane Jones off the bench. Jones was a former UCSF HIV nurse who was retired then, but had previously worked with Havlir on HIV. Despite also thinking it was crazy, Jones acquiesced. “Whenever Diane comes up with far-fetched ideas, listen — because they tend to be, within two years, global policy,” said Jones, referring to long-held protocols for the treatment of HIV that Havlir changed nearly overnight.
The plan grew. They got Joe DeRsi, co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub, on board. He and “over 175 post-docs and graduates” had built a processing lab in less time than it was taking some major labs to process Covid-19 tests. That lab changed San Francisco’s testing fortunes — and eventually the state’s. Any county was welcome to send its tests and the BioHub would process them for free, a story that Michael Lewis has documented in The Premonition.
Next, Havlir and DeRisi needed a sign-off from Chancellor Sam Hawgood.“When Joe comes into my office, it’s usually about some completely off-the-wall idea. But I listened,” said Hawgood.
Havlir marched in as well. They needed to act, she told the chancellor. “That resulted in the wonderful partnership,” Hawgood recalled.
It was one that also required millions of dollars. No exact numbers have yet been disclosed, but it is safe to say that Hawgood, Havlir, and Jacobo worked the phones with plenty of heavy-hitting donors. They were very convincing, according to all reports, and raised money to test and fund follow-up care for tens of thousands of the city’s vulnerable populations.
Still nothing in April would happen without the green light of Mission leaders, said head of the Latino Task Force Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, poised in her usual ponytail and cat-eye sunglasses.“They told us that we want to do testing, and I said, ‘the hell you will in our community!’”
She presented the terms for the nascent partnership between UCSF and the Latino Task Force. “‘Wait a minute. We’re going to work together. We’re going to meet every single day and we’re going to do 50/50, all right? And they said, ‘OK.’”
It wasn’t easy, she said. “I’ve got on people’s nerves, I hurt their feelings, I was blunt. I had no time to be liked,” said TuIier-Laiwa. “I had an obligation to my elders, my ancestors, and to my community.”
Indeed, she and other Latino Task Force leaders like Jacobo and mother-daughter-duo Susana and Susy Rojas put pressure on the Health Department when months into the pandemic they hadn’t moved testing resources to where it was needed most: in the Mission and Bayview.
Constantly, “Valerie, Jon, Susana, they would get to me and say, well, where’s the testing?” said Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax, who kept insisting in press conferences that the city would “follow the data and science” in testing. That wasn’t happening, the Latino Task Force insisted.
Colfax said Wednesday that he appreciated the push and “challenging conversations.” He said, otherwise, how will bureaucracy move?
And, in part, thanks to the Unidos en Salud’s heat and the constant science coming out of the testing campaigns, policy did move. They innovated Community Wellness Teams, which bridged the gap between testing and contact tracing and supplied positive residents with resources and food.
Havlir’s studies found essential workers were more prone to spreading and catching the virus, because of inability to work from home. Low-income workers would rather risk disease for a paycheck.
Unidos en Salud sent that information to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, and it gave her the data to get her Right to Recover assistance funded. This program gave two-weeks worth of minimum wage to essential workers who got sick and had no paid sick leave.
“I think we’re forever changed,” Ronen said on Wednesday, after hugging numerous attendees minutes before. “When I go to the grocery store now and I’m looking at the checkout person, all I can think is, you risked your life to make sure my family could get groceries. You’re a hero.”
The risk and loss is real. Maria Contreras, a volunteer, recalled vaccinating a man who came to the site after seven of his family members died of Covid-19.
Edgar Castellanos, another volunteer, said Unidos fostered trust in a community that otherwise might have been skeptical of medical institutions. One anxious man asked him about a vaccine, and Castellanos patiently spoke with him until he decided to get one. The man came back for his second and, “tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘thank you. Not for providing information, but letting me feel heard, supported and above all, cared for.’”
Looking back on how volunteers like Contreras and Castellanos kept the community at heart, Rojas choked up. “I’m here, tonight, feeling very emotional,” Rojas said.
Beaming in a red dress, Mayor London Breed pointed out all the smiles — which she interpreted weren’t due to lack of masks, but because those happy people understood. They had turned the pandemic back around. Breed still remembered the worst of it, when “frankly, those [Covid-19] graphs scared me,” she laughed.
“We made something magical happen. Every person here — for the roles that you all played in this success, you should be so proud,” Breed said.
Once the speeches finished, everyone grabbed champagne flutes and cupcakes decorated with the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District logo.
I hung back, feeling strange. I remembered last summer when the 24th BART Station was simply the stop I took to get to work. I saw it converted months later to a pop-up testing site, then a permanent site, then take on vaccine sign-ups. Now, again, it’s a plaza.
I reflected back on when Jacobo told us that this very McDonald’s lot where I was standing would soon be a vaccination site. Neighborhood vaccines? I thought incredulously back then. So soon? But sure enough, the tents went up and opened the first of February.
The city moves on to business as normal, as it should. People want to put the pandemic far behind them. So do I.
But as Havlir urged the city to continue vaccinating at the celebration’s close, it’s clear many others, including Unidos en Salud, keep going. And when their members and numerous partners pass by these seemingly ordinary places — a train plaza, a union building — they’ll remember the magic that took place here. Right here, in the Mission.