City officials are scaling up testing for the novel coronavirus and working to reach a goal of being able to test everyone in congregate living facilities, all essential workers and communities impacted by health disparities, according to Dr. Susan Philip, The City’s director of infectious disease prevention and control.
The City currently has the capacity to conduct 4,300 tests per day through the SF Public Health Laboratory, the Clinical Laboratory at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, and the UCSF Laboratory, Philip said at a briefing Thursday. However it has so far only been conducting an average of 500 daily tests due to challenges in obtaining enough supplies for gathering samples as well as lab reagents for conducting the actual test.
Philip wouldn’t commit to a specific number of tests per day or a date, but she said that The City’s goal is to reach 80-90% of testing capacity, or roughly 3,500 tests per day.
“We don’t know what the future will hold. Nobody does because everyone in the world really wants to save materials, but right now in San Francisco we do have a good supply to enable us to get a little bit closer to our vision of scaling up testing and having universal access to testing for people who need it,” Dr. Philip said at the press conference.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) has been working to expand testing since its first test on March 2, and had tested 12,598 City residents as of Wednesday, with 12% of those cases coming back positive.
“This is not a vision that we can achieve overnight or this week or next week, but we’re moving towards that as we expand our capability, expand our testing sites, expand our supply chain to make sure that we have all the reagents and materials that we need,” Philip added.
Mass testing has been administered to sick and asymptomatic people alike in certain settings, such as at MSC South, The City’s largest homeless shelter, where there was an outbreak two weeks ago affecting more than 100 people, but only on an “as needed” basis thus far, Philip said. Shelters, jails, SROs and nursing homes have all been key areas of concerns for those working to contain the spread of disease.
As of Wednesday, The City announced that all San Francisco residents and essential workers experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms and any close contacts with confirmed COVID-19 cases will have access to testing, even if they don’t have health insurance. They can make an appointment online at SFCityTest to receive a test.
As of now there are 26 sites throughout The City collecting samples.
SFDPH has expanded its list of what qualifies people for testing to include atypical symptoms such as diarrhea, fatigue, muscle aches, chills and a loss of smell or taste, among others.
The testing primarily conducted thus far and being referred to in the expansion is molecular and focused on determining whether or not someone is currently infected. Antibody testing was also discussed and may be an important tool for determining community spread.
Dr. Philip urged caution though around using antibody testing too soon as a tool to determine who is immune and free to safely return to normal work and activity.
“We don’t know as a scientific or public health community what the full extent of immunity might mean,” she said. “The antibodies might be there, but we don’t know if it offers complete protection against reinfection. It’s very likely. Based on what we know of other coronaviruses it will, but it still remains to be seen. It’s an open question and of course we don’t want to put people unnecessarily at risk until we have more certainty about that.”
On top of this, it is unclear how long immunity may last. Dr. Philip referenced the flu, for which new vaccines must be made each year.
Philip emphasized that testing alone does not stop the spread and it is important to follow stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines.