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Sonoma County Fairgrounds takes over as free coronavirus testing site in Santa Rosa

The testing, provided through a state contract, is meant to generate crucial data girding Sonoma County’s efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.|

Part of the dormant Sonoma County Fairgrounds stirred to life Thursday afternoon, as health care workers set up tables, chairs and COVID-19 testing equipment in the cavernous Grace Pavilion — the new site of free coronavirus testing in Santa Rosa.

The afternoon move from Santa Rosa High School didn’t take long, and by 7 a.m. Friday, testing at the fairgrounds will commence at a pace of up to 288 patients per day.

Even at that volume, the testing area, framed by temporary metal barriers, occupies only the northwest corner of the pavilion, with the rest of the football field-sized building – the largest on the grounds – empty and dark, offering a surreal backdrop for the important pandemic work to come.

The free public testing, one of two such sites in the county and provided through a state contract with private health care company OptumServe, is meant to generate crucial data for the county and California’s efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But as testing has ramped up, and the COVID-19 caseload increases, results have been slow to come for some, raising questions about the turnaround time and immediate efficacy of the data.

One Santa Rosa couple has waited about a week for results to trickle in from their tests.

“While we’ve been good citizens and quarantined while we’ve waited for results, it seems to me that turnaround times such as that completely undermine the utility of testing,” said Dave Marquard, who along with his wife, Leah Pope, was tested a week ago. “We’ve passed the point where the test result would have changed any of our behavior and gotten to a place where the result is simply interesting.”

Marquard said his results came back negative, but Pope still awaits hers. Both had symptoms that made them want to seek out tests.

Quest Diagnostics, the lab giant that processes tests for OptumServe, acknowledged in a written statement that test results have lagged, but also stressed that the company was working around the clock to boost processing capacity.

OptumServe said it has worked with the state to improve turnaround times, but in its written statement also suggested it may look to other labs to help ease the testing backlog.

“We are diversifying our lab partnerships in order to meet this increased demand for capacity,” a spokesperson for the company said via email.

The California Department of Public Health did not respond directly to questions, but provided a statement.

“We monitor processing times at testing sites and understand that as demand for testing increases, processing times may also increase at some locations. When this happens, we work collaboratively with our partners to identify solutions to ensure we can continue meeting local testing needs.”

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Wednesday that the results lag at the free testing sites has not seriously impaired the county’s ability to combat the virus’s spread through contact tracing, which involves reaching out to anybody who contacted people known to have been infected. That is largely due to the fact that the vast majority of those tested at the free sites in Santa Rosa and Petaluma end up testing negative.

Supervisor James Gore, relaying his own conversations with Mase, said the free testing sites in Sonoma County – at the fairgrounds and on the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus – are meant for asymptomatic residents. Identifying those infected residents who don’t have symptoms is thought to be a critical step to slowing the spread, as isolating those people could at the very least cut down on the opportunities for transmission.

“The big thing is we need to get the asymptomatic people identified and out of the community as much and as quickly as possible,” Gore said, adding that he’s awaiting results of his third test (his first through OptumServe) because he wants to hug his mom and stepdad.

The two local OptumServe sites both can handle up to 288 tests a day.

Sonoma County health officials, meanwhile conduct 120-160 tests per day, mostly through contact tracing and surveillance testing, including at skilled nursing facilities. Combined with the two OptumServe sites, and all of the testing at private health care providers, Sonoma County has daily test capacity of at least 700, with total tests to date standing at nearly 50,000.

The relocation of Santa Rosa’s free testing site comes amid preparations for an unprecedented school year and as the fairgrounds sit empty ‒ the annual summer fair and other events canceled amid a pandemic that dried up fairgrounds revenue.

Becky Bartling, CEO of the Sonoma County Fair, said the fair will receive $600 per day, paid by the county, for its role in hosting the testing, which will continue at least through the end of August.

Ken Tasseff, privacy officer with the county’s Public Health division, said county officials expect to be able to recoup that expense through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Santa Rosa High School provided its facilities free of charge, and Tasseff heaped praise on Santa Rosa City Schools for the offer.

Even with payments to the county fair, though, Tasseff said the state-sponsored testing with OptumServe is saving the county millions of dollars. Quest would normally charge $100 per test, Tasseff said, and the county’s two free testing sites conduct nearly 580 tests per day.

“The value just of the testing is about $58,000 per day that the county’s saving,” Tasseff said.

On Thursday, traffic outside the fairgrounds hummed along Bennett Valley Road and on the elevated lanes of Highway 12, a stone’s throw away from the fairgrounds, where workers inside were finishing the setup inside Grace Pavilion.

Crews in medical scrubs arranged the testing area and one adjusted the placement of a trash can decorated in the fair’s ubiquitous dairy cow pattern, a dissonant but fitting symbol of the upside-down pandemic era.

Free Community Testing For COVID-19

How: Appointments are required. No drive-up testing. Residents can go to https://lhi.care/covidtesting or call 1-888-634-1123 to schedule an appointment.

Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds and the Petaluma campus of Santa Rosa Junior College.

Who: All Sonoma County residents are eligible, regardless of age, economic or immigration status, or health symptoms.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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