empty shelves with price tags for different brands of at home covid tests
Empty shelves where at-home rapid Covid-19 tests should be at a Walgreens on Market Street testify to scarce supply. Photo taken by Anlan Cheney on Jan. 3, 2022.

It’s empty shelves and livin’ on a prayer for community pharmacies and their customers in need of Covid-19 rapid testing kits to travel, work and go to school.

As the week began, local stores either had a limited supply or empty shelves as managers waited for new orders to arrive. Meanwhile, the lines at testing sites in the Mission were long and steady. Over the weekend at the Unidos en Salud/United in Health testing, vaccine, and booster site at Capp and 24th streets, people had to be turned away because even after extending hours, time ran out. 

At the pharmacies, supply was the issue. 

“Two weeks ago, we got eight cases of BinaxNOW, but sold out in two hours,” said a shift manager at the Walgreens at 18th and Castro streets. On Monday morning, the shelves were empty; she was hoping for an order to arrive later this week. Ditto at the Walgreens at 24th and Potrero streets. 

During a Monday morning meeting of the Latino Task Force, Dr. Diane Havlir, UCSF professor and lead researcher on the Unidos en Salud test and research campaign now at Capp and 24th streets, reported that test positivity rates there had never been higher. More than 900 people tested over the weekend, and 175 tested positive, for a positivity rate of 19.4 percent — the highest so far during the pandemic, she said. 

At the Unidos en Salud site at 701 Alabama St., 763 people were tested last Thursday, and 129 were positive, while more than 700 tested at Norton Street and 136 came back positive, according to Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, who is on the executive committee of the Latino Task Force. 

Unidos en Salud, a collaboration between UCSF and the Latino Task Force, began in April, 2020, and has tested, vaccinated and boosted tens of thousands of San Francisco residents by offering low-barrier access. Increasingly, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has become an active partner.

At the Monday meeting with the Latino Task Force, Havlir stressed the need for more residents to get boosted and for more tests. “We need to be really cautious when we have massive amounts of covid circulating in our community to do repeat testing,” she said.

While the omicron variant may be milder than the delta variant, she added, “the reason we’re seeing the lower hospitalizations is because of vaccinations and boosters.” More of the latter — only 58 percent of SF residents over the age of 16 are boosted — will help keep hospitalizations and severe illness down, she said.

The tests at the Unidos and other community sites are free, but San Francisco has yet to widely distribute free at-home tests and those looking for kits to buy found them difficult to find and expensive to purchase. 

The Walgreens stores at 2690 Mission St. and 1300 Market St. had only a few boxes of Flowflex Covid-19 antigen rapid home test kits at $10.99 per box as of Monday morning. Each box contains one test, whereas other popular brands, like BinaxNOW and QuickVue, contain two tests per box at $23.99. 

At that price, many families cannot afford to test, said Roberto Hernandez, Latino Task Force executive committee member, at the Monday morning meeting. “People have no money, you know, and it’s just going to get worse again,” he said. 

Havlir agreed.  

“It was never, ever a sustainable model to have these $20 store-bought rapid test kits,” Havlir said. 

Washington, D.C., she said, is passing out free tests.

Other states are also distributing or plan to distribute at-home rapid antigen and PCR tests to a wider population, including Connecticut, Louisiana, and New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Washington.

The same needs to happen in San Francisco, researchers said Monday. 

“I will continue and commit to be very vocal, as I have been, about getting access for rapid tests to the highest affected communities, along with education and what to do for a positive result,” Havlir said.

In the meantime, she stressed the need for vaccinations, boosting, testing, isolating and masking. 

A slide presented to Latino Task Force partners by Dr. Diane Havlir, UCSF research lead for the Unidos En Salud/United in Health test and research campaign on Jan. 3, 2022.

Diane Jones, a retired HIV nurse who long worked with Havlir at UCSF and has been active throughout the Unidos testing and research campaign, added “my phone, like all of yours, has been blown up all over the holidays because people are desperate to get tests. You can’t even if they had money, you can’t buy them at Walgreens, because they’re out and there’s no access … If there were more testing sites across the city, we wouldn’t be facing this situation.” 

And that, indeed, was the case. Tests are scarce or expensive.

A pharmacist at the Walgreens at 24th and Potrero streets said he expects shipments today, as well as Thursday and Sunday. He recommended coming for kits first thing. “They sell out very quickly,” he said. “It’s better to come early, around 8 a.m.”

Store employees at multiple locations said corporate Walgreens set limits of four kits per customer about two weeks ago, but the kits are still flying off of the shelves.

The shift manager in the Castro said they have 204 boxes on the way, many of which will be bought by tourists. But it’s not guaranteed they’ll get that many, nor when they will arrive.

Narineh, assistant store manager at the Walgreens at 2145 Market St, said they order around 900 kits a week. “I can’t say how many we’ll get,” she said, explaining that it depends on the corporate warehouse’s stock, as the available kits have to be shared among stores.

She was assisting a mother looking for kits to test her children before they return to school. After discussing the only remaining Covid-19 test in the store, a Pixel brand PCR home collection kit, which cost $124.99 and had to be sent to a lab for a few days of processing, she advised the mother to return for the next expected shipment on Wednesday.

“Kits are selling too fast,” she said. “Once we receive and stock, people are buying them right away.”

At Safeway, at-home testing kits have been backordered since mid-November, said a pharmacist at the 2020 Market St. store, and they haven’t been informed when the kits will be back in stock. “I hear from people that they can order tests on Amazon,” he said.

A sign posted at the Safeway pharmacy at 2020 Market St. alerts customers that they have no covid rapid tests in stock. A pharmacist there told Mission Local they have been out since mid-November. Photo taken by Anlan Cheney on Jan. 3, 2022.

More bespoke options, like the online TIN Rx pharmacy service, are also facing a supply shortage. Ving Truong, the pharmacist at the Castro pick-up location on Market Street, confirmed they have been out of tests since Friday. 

They previously filled six to nine orders for rapid tests a day, and expect to receive a shipment of 24 boxes tomorrow. But this comes with a price increase. QuickVue tests, at $26 for a box of two tests, are out of stock, so they are filling orders with InteliSwab which runs $42 for two tests.

AHF Pharmacy in the Castro does not sell rapid testing kits, while Mission Wellness Pharmacy has procured at-home test kits for its clients.

It’s unclear why the San Francisco Department of Public Health has been unable to obtain and distribute tests for free, but a spokesperson wrote in an email Monday that they were looking for ways to get a supply. 

The department “is looking at ways to distribute rapid/home tests to our highly impacted communities, once we see results from federal efforts to increase supply and affordability of test kits,” the spokesperson wrote.

“As we expected, we are experiencing an increase in demand for COVID-19 testing during and after the busy holiday season; we prepared for this scenario and have systems in place to administer 20,000 per week at SFDPH-affiliated sites,” according to the spokesperson.

Members of the Latino Task Force suggested reopening Moscone for testing, and noted that the Alemany testing site had closed earlier last week. 

“We need more access to testing for people,” said Havlir at the end of the meeting with the Latino Task Force.  “And I will continue, as all of us should, [to] be very vocal about that message.”

Lydia Chávez contributed reporting to this article.

An earlier version of this article indicated Farmacia Remedios and Mission Wellness Pharmacy did not sell at-home rapid testing kits. The former has closed, and the latter “has procured at-home test kits for its clients.”

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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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  1. The lines snaking around the Mission blocks near the 24th & Capp testing area the past couple of days have been INSANE, just takes your breath away.