It’s not often a Covid-19 testing site takes a page from Disneyland’s book. But as lines grew at the testing site at 24th and Capp streets, leaders decided a “fast-track” pass could speed things along.
Anyone who recently tested positive at 24th and Capp receives a “fast-track” pass in a text message, which encourages them to retest with the promise that they can jump the line — which, on recent days, was a three-hour wait. Unidos en Salud, the organization running the 24th and Capp site, rolled out the feature last week so groups who are most at risk for getting or spreading the virus can check their status more conveniently.
“It’s to facilitate the repeat testing. We didn’t want to penalize people for doing the right thing” and retesting, said Diane Jones, a former nurse at the University of California, San Francisco, and a leader with Unidos en Salud. “We had all these people coming back, and many are testing positive. We didn’t want them to wait another five hours and contaminate everyone in line.”
The 24th and Capp site has been running through some 800 to 900 tests a day since it reopened Jan. 2. A security guard, Victor Love, estimated that the “normal” line takes two to three hours to get through; demand increased dramatically amid the omicron surge and after the holiday season. In comparison, the fast-track line took about an hour to get through.
The fast-track idea also developed in response to a change in the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control’s isolation recommendation, which shortened the time of isolation from 10 to five days if the individual is not symptomatic and continues to mask for the remaining five days. For this reason, the fast-track pass is sent approximately four days after the positive result, and is valid specifically within a 10-day period.
This is because doctors believe covid runs its course in 10 days on average; it’s most infectious on days three, four and five. Delayed test results mean infected people could potentially and unknowingly spread the virus to others as they continue to socialize. Conversely, some people could needlessly quarantine after being exposed, costing work and pay for essential workers and day laborers.
Dr. Diane Havlir, a professor of medicine at UCSF and a leader with Unidos en Salud, said at a meeting Monday that the fast-track pass encourages those who test positive to get retested around day five. If the test is positive on day five, individuals should isolate for another five days. Otherwise, they can end isolation. (Those who isolated for 10 days need not retest.)
Over the weekend, of the 51 patients who retested at Unidos, roughly 40 percent retested positive, Havlir said, emphasizing that the data was preliminary. It’s unclear yet how many people retested overall, but the site reports roughly 300 positives a day, said Jones.
One of the fast-track beneficiaries was Santos Pech, who joined the fast-track line 15 minutes before testing commenced at 9 a.m. on Monday. He tested positive last week, suffered a slight sore throat and cough, but no longer has any symptoms. Still, he wanted to retest for his family and work’s sake; he’s glad the fast-track system means he can skip the already-growing line.
“I want to be sure I don’t have the virus, and I don’t think it makes sense to wait in the line if you tested positive [previously],” Pech said in Spanish. The last time he visited 24th and Capp, the line reached almost to 25th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, he reported.
Ana Garcia also stood in line Monday morning, and believed the fast-track strategy would help separate the sick from the healthy. She said that, without the ability to skip it, she probably wouldn’t wait in the lengthy “normal” line.
Indeed, the fast-track confused and irked some relegated to the normal line. “People [using fast-track] like it. People standing in the long line don’t like it,” Jones said.
That speaks to the large capacity Unidos en Salud takes on at the site, where testing is funded by UCSF. Meanwhile, city-affiliated sites face increased demand, but also their own complications. Multiple Color sites had to shut down on Tuesday, due to a technical issue.
On Capp Street, testers hail from as far away as Vallejo or Santa Clara to grab a test, because no one will be turned away.
Love, the site security guard, said people start staking their spots at 6 a.m. — three hours before opening. “They come in before I come in. I start at 7:30,” Love said.
On Monday by 9 a.m., the site lured anyone you can imagine: A child in pajamas riding her sparkly blue scooter; a group of nuns clutching wooden rosaries and notebooks; an elderly woman buried in a knit cap, shades, and a double-looped gingham scarf. Staff cut off the line in the early afternoon, and still finished operations after 4 p.m.
At the fast-track line, Love turned away a flow of people without the magic pass. Rejects looked longingly once, bowed their heads, then trudged across Lilac Street to the “normal line” entry at the other end of Capp Street. “Not halfway down, that’s the vaccine line,” Love warned, anticipating their disbelief at the length. “But all the way down. All the way.”