What’s it like to get tested for COVID-19 in Berkeley right now?

With some community members complaining of long waits both to get a test appointment and to receive the results, we surveyed the options offered by the city and how they are working.

Berkeley’s main testing center, run by the state, is at the MLK Jr. Youth Services Center at 1730 Oregon St. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Some people who have been taking advantage of the free COVID-19 testing that the city has been offering since early June say they have been left feeling frustrated by long waits for appointments and to get their results — even as the state rushes to increase testing capabilities. Others have been pleasantly surprised at how easy the experience has been and the relative speed with which they get their test results.

Community members who shared their stories with Berkeleyside report having waited up to two weeks for an appointment and up to another two weeks to get their test results back. By then the results were already meaningless, they said. Instead of waiting, some residents have traveled out of town, to cities like Vallejo, to get tested.

The city is working closely with the state, which conducts the tests, to expedite testing, according to Berkeley’s spokesman, Matthai Chakko.

Dr. Lisa B. Hernandez, Berkeley’s public health officer, said delays have become one of the city’s primary concerns.

“I think a lot of it has to do with increased demand for testing, but it’s not unique to Berkeley,” she said. “We have communicated to the state and labs what we are seeing on the ground.”

The city says residents with private health insurance should try to schedule tests at their providers before making appointments at city and state-run sites.

Hernandez attributed the recent delays in test results and testing availability to being in a new stage of the pandemic. More people are going out in public now, which increases the risk of exposure to the virus. Still, Hernandez said Berkeley residents have generally been compliant with face covering and physical distancing regulations.

There have been 341 positive cases in the city of Berkeley, as of July 22, with an overall positivity rate of 2.21% weekly, according to the city. There have been three COVID-19 fatalities in Berkeley since April 8, new data from the city and county showed Tuesday.

The main testing hub in Berkeley is at Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Center at 1730 Oregon St. The free, city-sponsored site on Sixth Street run in collaboration with LifeLong Medical Care also offers tests and has a mobile testing unit that goes out to places like senior facilities and skilled nursing facilities. It also works with businesses to test their employees. (See below for details of testing options.)

Berkeley resident Luis A. Estrada was looking to get COVID-19 testing on Monday, July 20 at both the M.L.K Jr. Youth Services Center on Oregon St. and LifeLong Medical on Sixth St. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

Test results are taking longer now because of the increase in the number of people taking them, according to Ali Bay from the California Department of Public Health and Public Affairs. States are also expanding the number of testing facilities and all those samples are flooding into labs. Over the last few months, California has gone from doing 2,000 tests a day to more than 100,000 tests a day, said Bay.

“A number of commercial laboratories are processing samples not only from California, but from across the nation, and these laboratories are becoming overwhelmed with large volumes of specimens, slowing down processing timelines,” said Bay in an email.

To add order to the system, the California Department of Public Health issued an update on July 14 recommending that cities and laboratories prioritize the testing of hospitalized individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 infection, followed by testing of other symptomatic individuals and higher risk asymptomatic individuals. The final tier of testing should be performed on other asymptomatic individuals.

“California has instructed all laboratories to prioritize the processing of specimens from high-risk groups,” said Bay.

The state is also working on matching organizations with laboratories to maximize laboratory capacity across the state, both among public and private laboratories, while also building out the supply chain for swabs, viral media and specimen collection kits. To date, the state has distributed 3.4 million swabs, 2.2 million vials of viral media and 414,000 specimen collection kits. To better leverage resources, the state is working with laboratories on other testing methods, such as pooled testing.

The state will continue working with federal partners to help address supply chain issues, specifically around reagents and cartridges. “Now, we need the federal government more than ever to help us ensure that we have the supplies to process specimens timely,” said Bay.“Although we have made considerable progress, we still have much more work to ensure that the supply chain is stable and that we ensure adequate access to testing, particularly among low-income and minority communities,” said Bay. “Now is the time to ensure that we not only have adequate capacity but that we are processing all tests timely in order to inform our clinical decisions to further mitigate the spread of the virus.”

“We want to help people without healthcare insurance the most,” said Chakko. “It’s important that people not think the local sites run in collaboration with the state, county or local nonprofits are the only option for testing.”Both Hernandez and Chakko said residents with private health insurance should try to schedule tests at their providers before making appointments at the city and state-run sites to maximize testing for Berkeley’s most vulnerable populations.

Dr. Tony Iton, former Alameda County public health director, and senior vice president of private healthcare foundation California Endowment, supports the city’s efforts to prioritize those who get the free tests.

“There are two things all communities including Berkeley should be doing, and that’s to prioritize testing for populations that are at the greatest risk,” said Iton, who clarified that this means folks in Berkeley who live in the flatlands, who have the highest poverty levels and where the highest levels of essential workers reside.

“We need to devote more resources to the needs of these communities, both for the sake of protecting them, but also for the sake of protecting the larger society,” said Iton. “If we leave these populations fully in harm’s way, the disease will not limit itself to any particular population and it will continue to spread.”

LifeLong Medical Registered Nurse Maria Zimmerman picks up roughly 100 COVID-19 testing samples at the LifeLong Medical testing site on Sixth Street in Berkeley on Monday, July 20. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

The city of Berkeley’s COVID-19 dashboard provides recent testing data. As of July 22, 16,578 tests have been performed on Berkeley residents from all sources, including private labs and hospitals like Kaiser. The dashboard shows there was an average of 306 tests a day performed from July 2 to July 15, meeting the city’s target goals of 245 tests a day.

In a week-long period from July 10 to July 17, the city of Berkeley, Lifelong and the state-funded provider, Optum, performed a total of 739 tests (a decline of 117 tests from the week before) between the Sixth Street test site, the Oregon Street test site and mobile testing, according to City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley’s most recent COVID-19 response update. 64.5% of people tested that week live or work in Berkeley.

More testing sites are needed, say some residents

Some people in the community would like to see more testing sites in Berkeley.

“I think Berkeley needs to add a couple more sites in North and West Berkeley to accommodate those of us who don’t have cars and can’t take public transit if we might be infected,” said Berkeley resident Andrea Bloom, who was tested in late June at the MLK Jr. Youth Center. Bloom participated in the recent Black Lives Matter protests and wanted to be on the safe side and get tested.

Hernandez said the city currently doesn’t have plans to do add more sites.

Below are the testing sites available in Berkeley and the experiences of some residents who recently got tested there:

MLK Jr. Youth Services Center

Location: 1730 Oregon St. 
Hours
: Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (closed from 12 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Who: Anyone 
Appointments
: Must have an appointment. Make an appointment online (which involves creating an account and answering questions). Register by phone: 888-634-1123
Results: From four to six days, but some people waiting more than 10 days

In the past month, test results from this state-run testing site have taken longer than the promised four to six days, sometimes taking weeks to arrive.

Berkeley resident Katie Murphy said she got tested here on July 14, after waiting 12 days for the next appointment. She chose the site because of its proximity to her residence. “I never had any symptoms that made testing something I felt like I urgently needed to do,” she said. “But I figured why not sign up? It’s quick, easy and free.” Murphy has a private healthcare plan, but she said driving to Sutter California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco is not ideal, especially because she works from home and tries to stay there.

When she arrived at her appointment on July 14, Murphy was slightly surprised that nobody else was there. “I had to wait so long for a test, I assumed it would be pretty swamped at all times,” said Murphy, who thought maybe the site was running low on equipment or that they didn’t want to overwhelm the lab. “I thought it would be more of a process than in-and-out in four minutes.”

It’s been ten days and Murphy still hasn’t received her results. She continues to receive texts and emails from UC Berkeley’s IGI lab saying her results are delayed due to increasing demand for testing.

Berkeley resident Luis A. Estrada attempted to get tested at the Oregon Street site on Monday but was told the next available date was July 29. Estrada said he tried the Sixth Street site, but was told to come back on Tuesday (he was able to get tested Tuesday). He’s been wanting to get tested after recently coming into close contact with someone who was sick, and said he needs to ensure he’s healthy before returning to his job as a house painter in Piedmont. Estrada said it’d be better for the community if there were more testing sites.

Elgstrand said the Oregon Street site continues to have a test kit shortage and a delay in reporting test results. Elgstrand himself took a test at this site on July 10 and didn’t receive his results until eight days later. The good news was the result was negative. The bad news was that the results aren’t very helpful after so many days.

One of the registered nurses working at the site on Monday said there is an average of 10 to 30 no-shows a day, and that, if it were up to her, she’d accept symptomatic individuals who don’t have appointments and walk-up.

LifeLong Medical and city of Berkeley

Location: 1900 Sixth St. in the North Berkeley Senior Center parking lot
Who: LifeLong members, Medi-Cal/Medicare eligible, uninsured or undocumented, anyone living in Berkeley
Hours
: Open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Appointments: Must have an appointment. Register for an appointment by calling 510-981-4100 if you are a LifeLong member or 510-981-5380 if you are Medi-Cal/Medicare eligible, uninsured or undocumented. For more information, visit LifeLong Medical ‘s COVID-19 testing web page.
Results: Two to three days

This free testing site is primarily being used to serve vulnerable populations, including Black and Brown communities, according to Berkeley spokesman Chakko. (In Alameda County, Hispanic individuals are catching the virus at 6.5 times the rate of white individuals. Black individuals are dying at 2.5 times the rate of white individuals.)

West Berkeley resident Veronica Labarca was tested at this site on July 8. She described the process as easy, convenient and the nose swab as “uncomfortable, but not as bad as getting water up your nose.” Labarca received her results in five days. After reading comments on NextDoor about delayed test results, she was surprised her results came as soon as they did but was disappointed that they still arrived after the 24- to 72-hour timeframe she was told.

“‘I’m a high-risk person,” said Labarca, who is 61 and has asthma. “I live in a multigenerational household of 11, with other people who have asthma and high blood pressure. We’re Latinos; we live together. Anybody getting sick in our household could be devastating.”

Labarca is with Kaiser, but the senior center on Sixth Street is only a block away from her residence, so she chose accessibility over private healthcare. “If I had symptoms and I felt sick enough, I would get tested at Kaiser since that’s where I would be getting my care,” Labarca said. “But I don’t like the idea of going to places where sick people are. The Berkeley site felt safe to me.”

In an email, Dr. Magdalen Edmunds, LifeLong deputy chief medical officer of clinical affairs said LifeLong continues to focus on testing those who struggle with consistent access to quality and comprehensive healthcare. LifeLong is testing 300 to 400 people every week at each of its testing sites in Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond. 100 to 120 of those tests are performed at the Sixth Street site in Berkeley.

LifeLong is collaborating with Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) Lab at UC Berkeley and says it generally receives results from the lab in one to three business days.

Carbon Health

Location: 2920 Telegraph Ave, Suite #100
Hours: Open Monday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Who: All California residents; accepts most major health insurances and has provision for uninsured
Appointments: Register for an appointment by calling (510) 686-3621 or by visiting Carbon Health’s website.
Results: Five to seven days, can be quicker

Berkeley resident Darrell Owens has gotten tested at this site twice after getting denied testing by Kaiser, his primary healthcare provider. Owens developed cold-like symptoms which prompted him to get tested on June 9 at the Telegraph site. “I got the results back in a day and it was negative,” said Owens, who was told his results would be returned in 24 to 72 hours. “I was so surprised it was so quick that I thought it might have been done wrong.”

Owens recently attended Black Lives Matter protests and relies on public transportation, prompting him to get tested again on July 19, though he didn’t exhibit any symptoms. “You gotta be safe and I don’t want to be hanging out with people if I have COVID,” said Owens. “So it makes sense to probably do a test once a month or maybe once every two months.” As of July 23, Owens has not received his results but this time around, he could wait four to seven days.

Carbon Health spokesperson Mitsue Karaman said although the Berkeley clinic has been busy and seeing visits booked out days in advance, there is generally availability at their other locations. Lab results take up to seven days to be returned, but Carbon Health offers rapid tests — with results in 15 minutes — for patients specifically requiring surgical clearance.

“Carbon Health is not a membership-based healthcare provider, so we welcome everyone and accept all major insurance providers,” said Karaman. The FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) and CARES Acts have made funding available for COVID-19 testing and related care including those who are uninsured. If a patient is uninsured, they will be requested to fill out a short form at Carbon Health clinics which the company will share with the federal government as required by the FFCRA and the CARES Act.

University Health Services, Tang Center

Location: 2222 Bancroft Way
Hours: Open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Who: UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students (according to the state)
Appointments: Register for testing at this site by calling (510) 643-7197 or visiting the University Health Services website.
Results
: Three to four days

Many students getting tested here are participating in the Safe Campus Study, conducted by the university’s School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. The study is a partnership between University Health Services, the IGI Lab and the Berkeley’s public health department. “The study is meant to gather information that can help the campus maximize safety as more people come back to work … or class,” said Arthur Reingold, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC Berkeley and one of the Safe Campus Study coordinators. “It’s meant to inform that process.”

As of July 21 the study had collected 3,932 swabs from PCR testing with a positivity rate of roughly 1.2%.

Miracris Villanueva is a participating student. “I wanted to contribute information for the university so they can better advise campus policies and take the best course of action for students and others on campus,” she said. “Maybe spring could look different if they have the right amount of data.”

Villenueva has since gotten tested twice at the Tang Center, and got her blood drawn to test for antibodies (she’ll know if she has the antibody in late August). Villanueva received both her test results within two days. She’ll get tested once more in August while continuing to answer a survey every day about her daily exposure to COVID-19. The Safe Campus Study will last three months and end in late August.

“I hope they replicate the testing over the semester so students can get tested whenever they need without having to pay,” said Villanueva, who is being compensated $100 in gift cards for participating in the study. “One thing really cool that’s coming out of the study is that they’re building infrastructure for safe testing on campus.”