Anyone in Berkeley can now get a free COVID-19 test

Berkeley lags behind other cities in the number of people getting tested. Officials say the new site will help change that.

Nurse Megan performs a nasal swab on Berkeley Food and Housing Project Director of Programs Kathy Treggiari in April at a testing facility for first responders, essential workers and the vulnerable. Photo: Pete Rosos

The state of California has opened a new testing site in Berkeley that allows anyone, even those without symptoms, to get tested for COVID-19 for free.

The new site is in the Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Center at 1730 Oregon St. Those who want to get tested must make an appointment.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín was one of the first to get tested at the center and he posted photos of himself — wearing a Cal face mask — on Twitter.

Berkeley officials have been pushing for many weeks to get the state to open up a free testing site, according to City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley. The state operates these kinds of sites in other cities, such as Oakland and San Francisco.

Berkeley opened its own testing site in West Berkeley in early April. At first, the only people who could get tested there were first responders, essential city workers and the unhoused. The city later expanded that to include people who were exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus. UC Berkeley processes those early tests. UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff can also get tested at the Tang Health Center. The state’s vendor, Optum, will provide the results for tests taken at the new testing site.

Now even people without the telltale COVID-19 symptoms — dry cough, fever, chills, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, loss of smell and taste — can get tested.

Berkeley has lagged behind other jurisdictions in testing its residents. Before this site opened, only 3,577 Berkeley residents had been tested for COVID-19.

A Berkeleyside analysis done on May 22 showed that Berkeley had done about 1,800 COVID-19 tests per 100,000 people. San Francisco had performed about 5,600 tests per 100,000 people and Alameda County had completed 2,100-3,000 tests per 100,000 people.

Health officers in the Bay Area have set a goal for cities of completing at least 200 COVID-19 viral detection tests each day per 100,000 residents. This would mean 245 tests per day in Berkeley. In May, Berkeley did an average of about 52 tests of its residents each day. That number has since increased to about 65 tests each day with a 3% positive rate.

A new site will help with those numbers.

“This test site shifts us as a community into a new phase, allowing us to more quickly respond to cases, identify exposures and limit the spread,” said Williams-Ridley in the city’s announcement of the new testing site. “I am grateful to the quick mobilization of staff and the support of our Mayor and Council to expand testing in Berkeley.”

As of Monday, there had been 104 people in Berkeley who have tested positive for COVID-19. One person has died and 88 people have recovered.

While Berkeley residents have been under a shelter-in-place order since March 17, thousands ignored that order over the weekend, showing up in huge numbers to protest the police killings of George Floyd and other African Americans. While most protesters wore masks during the marches and rallies, it was difficult at times to stay six feet apart from others.

Groups of people can sign up to get tested

Merchants or business owners and community organizations can also schedule blocks of times to get their employees tested all at once, according to the announcement put out by Berkeley. Test results take two to three days.

If a Berkeley resident tests positive, the city’s Public Health Department will contact them and provide information of how to self-isolate. Contact tracing workers will also reach out to contact anyone who was in contact with the infected person, according to the city’s announcement.

“Public Health staff then determine who may need to isolate to see if they develop symptoms and may identify others who are ill who would need isolation. These acts prevent spread. And it is critical work as we enter future phases of this pandemic.”

The site will offer viral tests, which will tell a person if they are currently infected. Antibody tests, which may tell a person of a previous infection, won’t be offered.

The city’s announcement ended with a reminder to people to stay at home as much as possible, use face masks when they are within 30 feet of others outside, and to wash their hands frequently.

“We are on a path to success thanks to so many that have taken those steps,” says the announcement. “Our vigilance in protecting ourselves and our community will help us move forward in what is still a long road ahead.”

Update: The headline was changed after publication to make it clear that anyone who lives or works in Berkeley can get tested.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.