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Why researchers are testing 5,700 people for COVID-19 in San Francisco's Mission District

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SAN FRANCISCO — Doctors and volunteers fanned out early Saturday morning to pop-up testing centers in the city’s heavily Latino Mission District for an unprecedented effort to test all 5,700 residents in one census tract in hopes the data collected will help explain why Latinos and African Americans have been dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19.

The four-day campaign mirrors a similar push to test everyone in Bolinas, a remote town in Marin County with nearly 2,000 residents. Both efforts are being carried out by infectious disease researchers from UC San Francisco. In the Mission, residents will take a nasal swab test for COVID-19, as well as a blood test looking for antibodies, a tell-tale sign that someone had previously been exposed to coronavirus.

Jon Jacobo, a member of the city’s Latino Task Force for COVID-19, said he’s hoping this research will show just how widespread the virus has been in the community.

“I know many people that are certain they had it, they lose the sense of smell, they lose the sense of taste, but they’re told to stay home,” Jacobo said. “This is kind of our proof to say, hey, we need help.”

About 43 percent of COVID-19 deaths and 32 percent of cases in California have been from Latino patients, who make up 39 percent of the population. Black patients make up 7 percent of deaths and 11 percent of cases, higher than their 6 percent share of the population. But those numbers hide the true extent of the spread of the virus among communities of color, in part because the Latino population is relatively young.

Among people 18 to 49 years old, Latinos make up 66 percent of deaths and 44 percent of the population, and black residents are 15 percent of deaths and 6 percent of the population. Similar patterns hold in Bay Area counties that have released demographic data among COVID-19 patients and deaths. In Santa Clara County, for example, Latinos make up 33 percent of deaths and 27 percent of the population, while black residents make up 6 percent of deaths and 2 percent of the population.

Jacobo said he wasn’t shocked to see those statistics, tying it to a history of underinvestment in health care for communities of color. Many residents in the Mission District are also working in essential jobs like grocery stores and to-go restaurants, or are undocumented and aren’t eligible for federal stimulus money.

“The frank reality is that there are many in our community who are still working and don’t have the luxury of not working,” he said. A recent study from the Economic Roundtable found Latinos were at the highest risk of unemployment because of the coronavirus crisis.

To help address those health disparities, volunteers have been going door-to-door and putting up posters in the roughly four-block by seven-block census tract between South Van Ness Avenue and Harrison Street, and Cesar Chavez and 23rd Street. In one building, Jacobo said, volunteers were able to go from three registered participants to signing up residents in 25 apartments.

Despite being one of the hardest hits census tracts in the city, Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the area, said many residents are reluctant to participate, particularly if they are immigrants.

“One of the biggest barriers is distrust of government, the other is fear of immigration consequences,” Ronen said, pointing at an effort by the Trump administration to ban any immigrants who receive public assistance from applying for permanent residence. “That has caused a real reluctance from this community to accept assistance.”

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So far, Ronen said, 3,000 people had registered online to participate in the testing. She’s hoping more will show up in person throughout the four days, particularly residents without internet access.

Among those getting tested Saturday was Paola Juarez, who works in janitorial services and has lived in the Mission for 15 years. She said she wanted to get tested because she knows the Mission is a hotspot for coronavirus.

“Better to be well-informed and know you don’t have it, for the health of the family,” she said, adding she hadn’t felt any symptoms that might indicate she had the virus.

She said the test itself was quick, about 10 minutes for a small prick for blood and a nose swab which she said was a little uncomfortable but not too bad.

Anzel Martinez, who has lived in the Mission District for 25 years, was also getting tested at the Parque Niños Unidos testing center with his wife and son. He saw getting tested as part of his civic duty.

“We’re happy to volunteer because the medical health professionals and the scientists are lacking informed data,” said Martinez, who works in financial services. “Data is required for a proper risk assessment.”

Within 72 hours, Martinez and Juarez will get their COVID-19 test results. Anyone who tests positive will be contacted and community agencies are working to provide support services, which could include hotel rooms to help individuals self-isolate if they live in a house or apartment where that’s not possible otherwise, Ronen said. Organizers also hope to provide supplies like food, masks, and sanitizer for anyone who tests positive. Within two to three weeks, participants will get the results on their antibody test for previous exposure.

Martinez hopes whatever they find will help the U.S. catch up on what he saw as bad planning and decision-making nationally around testing, which many experts have said has long been inadequate to the scale of the pandemic.

“What’s happening in our little neighborhood is an indication of the path forward for the whole nation,” he said.

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