Here’s how Bay Area counties compare on coronavirus testing goals

SAN JOSE — Widespread COVID-19 testing — a key metric for easing lockdown orders — remains an elusive goal in much of the Bay Area, particularly Santa Clara County where elected officials have raised concerns about a lack of outreach as well as language and technology barriers that could continue to hamper testing in the communities most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Not everyone is struggling to test though — in San Francisco, by contrast, an aggressive outreach campaign has made the county the statewide leader in coronavirus testing.

Nearly 10 weeks into the region’s lockdown, Bay Area counties have had mixed results in ramping up testing. San Francisco has conducted 515 tests for every 10,000 residents, compared to 285 tests per 10,000 residents in San Mateo County, 266 per 10,000 in Santa Clara County, 230 per 10,000 in Alameda County and 204 per 10,000 in Contra Costa County.

The only Bay Area county close to San Francisco in testing rates is Marin, which has tested 364 people per 10,000 residents.

“Like other counties, we’ve had challenges with testing for a variety of reasons, such as supplies and staffing. We’ve been encouraged to see our numbers improve recently as the County has increased its capacity by adding staffing at testing sites and redeploying employees to help schedule testing appointments,” said Will Harper, a Contra Costa County Health Department spokesperson.

Low testing rates have been a particular point of frustration for officials in San Jose, where at least two testing sites are operating well below capacity and efforts to reach residents in the heavily Latinx and Vietnamese neighborhoods in East San Jose have been hampered by language and technology barriers.

“Clearly we still have a lot to do,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “We’re not testing proportionate to the need — part of that is a communication issue and part of it is, for example, for sites like this someone needs to get access to the internet to sign up.”

The difference in testing rates between Santa Clara and San Francisco counties underscores the challenges in ramping up testing capacity — as well as in reaching thousands of residents to get them to actually take a test. The lessons learned by the two counties could provide a critical roadmap as the Bay Area works to slowly ease its lockdown restrictions.

In Santa Clara County — an early hotspot for coronavirus in the country — county CEO Jeff Smith said the initial onslaught of cases made it difficult for the county to ramp up testing compared to their peers.

After the CDC’s first batch of test kits didn’t come through on time, the county planned to rely more on the private health care system’s myriad providers like Kaiser and Stanford. But by mid-April, it was clear that providers had disparate ideas about who, exactly, should get tested. And with about twice the population of San Francisco, spread across urban cities like San Jose to more rural areas like Gilroy, Santa Clara County also presented different challenges than its Bay area neighbor.

“We did get to a point where we just realized we’d have to push ahead as hard as we can on our own,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like suddenly a bulb went off, but could it have happened earlier? Sure, anything could have probably happened earlier.”

The health department has since launched a testing task force, led by former county health officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, and set up testing sites at the PAL Stadium and James Lick High School, both in East San Jose. The department has also operated a testing site at the Santa Clara County Fairground since mid-March.

The stadium and fairground testing sites, however, have each performed less than 60 percent of the tests they have the capacity to do — meaning the county could’ve carried out 4,270 more tests at those two locations.

Some government officials point to the county’s communication strategy — and the conspicuous need for more targeted efforts to reach Spanish and Vietnamese-speaking communities — as one of the main causes for the low testing rates, even as new sites are announced.

“Folks don’t even know that they’re there,” said San Jose Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco, whose district includes East San Jose, of the county’s testing sites. “We have to figure out how to pump this information out into households and be able to get people out to get tested.”

Hiccups related to language access have been reported at local testing sites even as they operate below capacity. In recent days, Carrasco sent her staff to get tested at two East San Jose sites. Several waited for more than an hour to get a Spanish speaker on the phone to make an appointment, Carrasco said. Her office has also heard from constituents who received texts in English after identifying as monolingual Spanish speakers.

In San Francisco, by contrast, outreach teams papered a handful of neighborhoods — including the historically lower-income Mission District and Bayview-Hunters Point — with upwards of 80,000 flyers in different languages. Language teams have also gone door-to-door at Chinatown businesses to pass out information and talk to business owners.

“Testing is one of the key strategies for mitigating the spread of the virus,” said Deirdre Hussey, a spokesperson for San Francisco’s Emergency Operations Center. “Making people aware of the opportunities around testing and breaking down the barriers around testing is one of the things we’ve been working on.”

Among his benchmarks for easing lockdown restrictions, Gov. Gavin Newsom has set a threshold of 1.5 tests per day for every 1,000 residents. Only San Francisco is close to reaching that in the Bay Area, with a seven-day average of 1.29 tests per 1,000 residents. During that same time Santa Clara County has averaged 0.78 tests per 1,000 residents, Contra Costa County has averaged 0.74 tests and San Mateo County has averaged 0.60 tests. Alameda County currently has the capacity to conduct 0.60 tests per 1,000 residents, according to a county spokesperson.

On Wednesday, the nine-county Bay Area reported 89 new COVID-19 cases and four new deaths. The region has had 11,401 cases and 408 deaths since the start of the pandemic. California reported 2,203 new cases and 88 deaths, both of which are higher than the state’s respective seven-day averages.

Fenstersheib said that reaching and testing vulnerable communities in Santa Clara County remains the primary challenge in increasing overall testing numbers. In an interview this week, he acknowledged that “the message hasn’t gotten out for people yet.”

“There have been barriers, and as we’re pivoting to making this happen, we’re dealing with all those barriers,” he said. “We know there has to be walk-up access, we know that people need to have signage … it’s not a perfect system yet, but it’s getting better.”

Reporter Maggie Angst contributed to this report

Source: mercurynews
Here’s how Bay Area counties compare on coronavirus testing goals