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San Francisco's Plan To Expand Testing Starts From The Mission District


Medical experts agree to ease stay-at-home restrictions, communities must increase the scale and speed of testing for the coronavirus. In California, the state is aiming to ramp up in so-called testing deserts often home to black and brown communities. These are often the communities hardest hit by the coronavirus. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from San Francisco, where researchers have just launched an effort trying to test everyone in part of one hard-hit Latino neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So let's - we all need to social distance.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The line of people six feet apart stretches around Garfield Square, a park in San Francisco's Mission District. Medical professionals in protective gear hurry around white pop-up tents on a field that, pre-virus, would be filled with soccer games and kids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Any symptoms like fever?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Any dry coughing?


WESTERVELT: Doctors here are trying to determine how deep the virus has penetrated this one densely populated section of the Mission District, a gentrifying but still predominantly Latino neighborhood. California recently became the first in the nation to recommend that all asymptomatic people in high-risk settings - nursing homes and prisons - get tested. This goes further. The goal is to test everyone in the census tract, more than 5,500 people, regardless of symptoms. Dr. Gabe Chamie with the University of California, San Francisco is leading this effort with help from the city's health department.

GABE CHAMIE: Right now all of our information is really coming from people who are sick. That's sort of the tip of the iceberg. We know that. To what extent or what size that iceberg is outside of the hospital needs to be determined.

WESTERVELT: To get people to show up, a small army of volunteers hit the streets, knocking on doors and passing out flyers in English and Spanish. That got the attention of locals, including Norma Garcia.

NORMA GARCIA: I think it's good for me to know to take precautions, protect other people - my neighbors and the community.

JON JACOBO: What we're doing here is - essentially, in this small census tract is what the country needs to be able to do to open back up.

WESTERVELT: That's Jon Jacobo with the COVID-19 Latino Task Force, which mobilized volunteers and community groups for the testing project.

JACOBO: We need to be able to do the testing, the isolation, the follow-up, the contact tracing. And until we can do that, things are not going to go back to normal.

WESTERVELT: The Mission is the city area hardest hit by the virus, mirroring the growing income inequality and health care disparities in San Francisco. Latinos are 15% of the city's population but make up 25% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases here. Jacobo says one obstacle - some in the community don't want to know if they have it. They might be the family's sole income earner and fear the 14-day quarantine and loss of income if they test positive.

JACOBO: Maybe you're undocumented and can't miss work and don't get federal stimulus checks, right? So there is this whole complication of some of the fears and the angst and the anxiety, and so we're trying our best to work through that and message the fact that, look; it can be life or death.

WESTERVELT: Jonathan Marquez got the message. He's in line with two relatives. The 19-year-old says they want to get tested for peace of mind and for work. He notes that some in his community are working two or three jobs to get by, often in frontline delivery and cleaning work.

JONATHAN MARQUEZ: An example in my family - two of my family members actually work cleaning houses. So it's like, you know, it's - not only is it for them but also for the people they work with, so get tested. You know, be a little bit more safe. And then, hopefully, get back to work if possible.

WESTERVELT: A college student who also works at the Giants' ballpark, Marquez wants to know as much as he can before school and baseball return. He just doesn't know when that'll be.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.

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