Berta Martinez got a free test for COVID-19 at the 24th Street/Mission Plaza transit hub in July. (Photo by Noah Berger/Courtesy UCSF)

Free coronavirus testing at Mission BART station finds high positive rate among Latino residents

Researchers found most who tested positive in study were asymptomatic, could not work from home

A coronavirus study that offered free, low-barrier testing in the Mission District found a jump in overall positivity rates and little change in rates among low-income, Latino households, researchers said Wednesday.

Preliminary results from testing conducted in August found that 9 percent of the 2,622 people tested in the neighborhood were positive for coronavirus, but that jumped to 11 percent for Latino participants. San Francisco’s overall positivity rate is 2.61 percent, said researchers from University of California, San Francisco and the Latino Task Force on COVID-19.

Working together as Unidos en Salud, researchers conducted mass, free testing over a three-week period at the 24th Street Mission BART plaza with no registration, insurance or identification required. Of those who tested positive, 93 percent were Latino, 85 percent spoke Spanish as their preferred language, and 79 percent lived with several other people.

Nearly half were in the most infectious stage of the disease and 92 percent were symptomatic. Fully 98 percent said they regularly wore masks in public and 92 percent said they used hand sanitizer.

Dr. Diane Havlir, chief of the UCSF Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and co-founder of Unidos en Salud, praised low-barrier testing at central transit hubs as an effective way to reach essential workers.

Many essential workers encounter barriers to getting tested like being unable to take time off work, lack of access to medical care, and fear of a positive test threatening their job security or immigration status. Just 22 percent of participants who tested positive had sick leave coverage and 87 percent made less than $50,000 each year.

“Seven months into this pandemic, low-income Latino essential workers living in close-knit family units continue to be uniquely vulnerable,” Dr. Havlir said in a statement. “Our data also further demonstrate the need to provide infected individuals with rapid results and social support so they can go into isolation to avoid infecting their families and other contacts.”

Researchers called for more low-barrier testing, reducing the time from contacting coronavirus to isolation to less than 48 hours, and reducing the time to access recovery funds to 72 hours.

“We’re asking them to risk their livelihoods, risk their living situation, not eat, to stay home and do a service for everybody else and not spread the virus,” said Jon Jacobo, a Latino Task Force for COVID-19 member. “It’s deeply personal, it’s deeply painful and it’s deeply frustrating to see from April to now, we have not been able to get a grip or a handle on something like COVID-19.”

Participants came from all over the Bay Area, but 82 percent lived in San Francisco.

Preliminary results from another community testing effort over one weekend in April found a 2 percent positivity rate among 2,959 Mission residents and workers in a single census tract. Of those who tested positive, 95 percent were Latino, 5 percent were Asian, 75 percent were male, and 53 percent were asymptomatic.

Those tested overall were 55 percent male and 44 percent Latino, in a census tract estimated to be 98 percent Latino.

Of the positive cases, only 10 percent were able to work from home and 89 percent made less than $50,000 a year.

“This important research reinforces our collective work to make testing more accessible to priority populations and helps inform efforts to assist these communities,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s public health director, in a statement. “In addition to expanding low barrier testing in neighborhoods with high rates of COVID-19, increasing the capacity of contact tracing teams, and continuing to offer isolation and quarantine rooms to people in need, we must continue to expand investments in our COVID-19 response, including in the Latino community.”

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

Correction: A previous version of this article noted that 92 percent of those positive for coronavirus were asymptomatic. They were symptomatic.

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