A free, walk-up Covid-19 specimen collection site at 18th and Dolores streets operated by Predicine, which also processes the samples in their lab, on Jan. 19, 2022. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

At the corner of 18th and Dolores streets, two young men directed a young woman to probe the inside of her nostrils with a long swab.

It’s a familiar drill; she’s done this before, she said, as she dropped the swab inside a clear plastic tube with a bar code pasted on the outside.

One of the gloved and masked young men screwed a lid on top of the tube and placed it in a biohazard container. She can expect results in 24 to 48 hours, he said, all for free. At hotels in Union Square or at the San Francisco international airport, he added, they’re charging people $200 and $150 per test, respectively.

Unbeknownst to the two young men operating the site for the laboratory Predicine, Inc, which is licensed, they had stationed themselves just across the intersection from where Community Wellness America, Inc., set up shop to collect covid specimens about a month ago  — without a license. 

Last week, the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office issued both Community Wellness America and their testing partner, Crestview Clinical Laboratory, a subpoena for records they had failed to provide at the office’s request by Jan. 17. But, by that time, Community Wellness America had already packed up and left.

The City Attorney and San Francisco Department of Public Health previously advised Mission Local and city residents about how to verify test collection sites, and a new health order enacted by the Department of Public Health Wednesday clarifies exactly what test-seekers should look for when proffered tests on public sidewalks and in parking lots.  

They should look for staff in appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), regular disinfection of tables and other surfaces, hand sanitizer and written policies on how specimens are collected and handled, staff are trained and results are communicated. Appropriate lab licenses should be provided to anyone who asks, as well.

The order was crafted with the City Attorney to “give the City more tools to ensure specimen collection sites are operating safely and properly,” wrote Jen Kwart, the office’s spokeswoman.

Test seekers happening upon one of these sites can also quickly search here to see if the lab has a proper license. 

“CLIA licenses are only given out to labs, but testing operators should be able to produce the CLIA license for the lab they send their samples to,” Kwart wrote to Mission Local in an email this week.

In addition, the Department of Public Health and City Attorney said that testing sites need to have permits from San Francisco Public Works.

Rachel Gordon, Public Works’ spokeswoman, told Mission Local that anyone occupying city sidewalks should have a Temporary Occupancy Permit (TOC), which requires completion of an application, a detailed site plan allowing pedestrians at least a six-food-wide passage in commercial and retail areas, a Certificate of Insurance (COI), and a fee calculated on a per-block, per-day basis.

These requirements are now clearer, but what’s less clear is whether and how the guidance will be enforced. 

Gordon said Public Works permitting enforcement is usually based on complaints and added they have not yet issued any permits to private entities for testing.

Kwart wrote that the City Attorney has received “several tips about a number of different sites — some that we believe to be legitimate and others we are still gathering information on. Our investigative team is following up on those.” 

As the manager at the Predicine-run site at 18th and Dolores streets, which Kwart said has been investigated and found to be operating legitimately, said, “I feel that it’s super convenient for people” to drop-in. He cited the experience of a family member who, having come down with symptoms earlier this month, was looking at testing appointments through Color; the soonest was two weeks out.

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office has provided the following guidance for covid test seekers: 

Members of the public in need of a COVID test are encouraged to first contact their healthcare provider for a test, if they have one, and then explore SFDPH-affiliated testing site options. For a list of testing sites in San Francisco, go to: sf.gov/gettested.

Consumers should be wary of any testing operator that asks for sensitive personal information like social security numbers or immigration status. If a member of the public suspects a testing facility to be operating without the proper authorization, they should notify city officials by submitting a tip to 311.

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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