The program will offer voluntary testing from Saturday to Tuesday with the goal of testing up to 4,000 people who live, work, play or pray in the neighborhoods. Volunteers will be tested for current coronavirus infections as well as for antibodies to show if they have already been exposed to the virus.
Researchers hope to influence policy and mobilize resources based on the results, said Dr. Kim Rhoads, assistant professor of epidemiology at UCSF. Widespread antibody testing could reveal when the virus first began circulating in San Francisco.
It’s possible the novel coronavirus was in the city as early as November, said Rhoads, who has heard repeated stories from people who suffered illnesses with COVID-19 symptoms last winter. Many said they had “never been so sick,” she said.
“That’s the thing I’m most curious about because I do think some people probably had the virus before we were really aware that it was here,” said Rhoads, who also serves as the community engagement director for UCSF’s cancer center.
Participants can opt out of the antibody test, which requires a blood draw, if they choose.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health and multiple community organizations are involved in the project as well.
Dr. Diane Havlir, chief of the infectious diseases division at San Francisco General Hospital, said testing is foundational to efforts under way in the Bay Area and throughout California to gradually reopen businesses, schools and churches.
“This is what we must do in order for us to respond effectively and reopen safely,” Havlir said in a statement. “We need more local community epidemiology like this to get a sense of where we stand, and where active infection may still be occurring, so as public health officials begin to release constraints on movements we can avoid resurgence of the disease.”
The new testing project, known as United in Health D10, follows UCSF’s first testing blitz in the Mission District in late April, when nearly 3,000 people were tested for the coronavirus. Results of the first-of-its-kind study revealed a troubling spike in infections among low-wage, essential workers. More than half of those who tested positve showed no symptoms.
The neighborhoods, located in District 10 in the southeast corner of San Francisco, were chosen because they have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They are home to many African American, Pacific Islander, Chinese and Latino residents.
The Bayview ranks as the San Francisco neighborhood with the second-highest rate of coronavirus cases — behind the South of Market district— with more than 54 cases per 10,000 people, according to city COVID-19 data broken down by ZIP code. The rate is roughly 32 cases per 10,000 people in Sunnydale and Visitacion Valley. Both are well above the citywide average rate of nearly 27 cases per 10,000 people.
Sunnydale was chosen because it is home to a significant population of Pacific Islanders, Rhoads said. This demographic suffers an unusually high rate of infections but it is often left out of data breakdowns, she said.
Dr. Monique LeSarre, executive director of the Rafiki Coalition on Health and Wellness, said the pandemic has amplified the pre-existing economic, environmental and health disparities in these communities. She hopes testing will provide important data to researchers and community members that will contribute to an equitable distribution of resources.
Other community groups, including Mercy Housing, Young Community Developers and Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, are encouraging people to participate in the voluntary program.
Some people are hesitant to get tested because of a historic distrust of hospitals; the stigma associated with the coronavirus; or concern about losing a job, having to leave their family or not being able to self-quarantine if they test positive, LeSarre said.
“Don’t get tested for yourself — get tested for your mother, your brother, your sister, your auntie,” LeSarre said she tells people. “We’re all protecting each other by getting tested.”
Testing will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Havard Early Education School, 1520 Oakdale Avenue, in the Bayview. In Sunnydale and Visitacion Valley, testing will be available from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday at Herz Playground, 1701 Visitacion Avenue.
Those who test positive will get a follow-up call from the Department of Public Health. City health officials will facilitate isolation and quarantine if needed, and community groups will deliver food and cleaning supplies and do daily check-ins.
Packages with COVID-19 information, masks and food are available at the testing locations.
That’s what makes the program different from other mobile, pop-up testing sites — it is backed by community engagement and follow-up support for those who test positive, Rhoads said.
“Without the community engagement, this isn’t going to work,” Rhoads said. “There’s a lot of volunteerism, there’s a lot of trying to connect with key influencers in the community to get the word out.”
Supervisor Shamann Walton said he was proud to work with UCSF and community leaders to offer comprehensive testing in his district.
“Like UCSF’s prior study in the Mission, this study in (District) 10 will help us to better understand the spread of COVID-19 in San Francisco’s most vulnerable neighborhoods,” Walton said.
Kimiah Williams, a 36-year-old Bayview resident, said she hopes everyone in the neighborhood gets tested. The mother has been working from home since March as a program manager at Westside Community Services, a San Francisco mental health organization.
But Williams’ job requires checking in on clients on occasion or running out to deliver food or toilet paper to families in need. Her family members could also be exposed in their line of work — her mother as a registered nurse and her husband as a parole officer.
Bringing resources to an underserved community where many people don’t have the luxury of working from home can be helpful, Williams said.
“If people actually take advantage of it being right here in the heart of where we live, maybe it can slow the spread,” she said.