parking lot with medical tents around
Chelsea Jones’ view as she drove to get checked for COVID-19 at a Sutter Health testing site in South Berkeley. Photo: Chelsea Jones

When Berkeley resident Chelsea Jones developed shortness of breath and a tightness in her chest, she was immediately worried that she had contracted COVID-19. She called her health care provider but was met with roadblocks. After filling out a questionnaire, she was told she didn’t need to be tested for the novel coronavirus. When she tried to sign up for a video appointment, there were none available.

Things started to look up when Jones received a message through Sutter Health’s online portal instructing her to call the “COVID-19 triage line.” Despite not having traveled overseas, not having any preexisting conditions and being just 32 years old, Jones (for whom we are using a pseudonym to protect her privacy) was told to visit a Sutter Health drive-up testing site in South Berkeley and was given an appointment time. There, a doctor evaluated her through her open window, taking her temperature, examining her throat and listening to her heart and lungs.

The doctor “said that all my vitals were normal and that my lungs sounded clear, and that this, plus my lack of fever, means he doesn’t think I have COVID-19,” Jones said in an email. “Given this, he said that he doesn’t think it made sense to test me at this time, especially because even if I did have COVID-19, they wouldn’t do anything different.”

With or without a diagnosis, the doctor told her, the “treatment” would be the same: Stay home.

Jones breathed a sigh of relief and went back to self-isolating in her home.

Jones’ experience is typical. Most people who want to get tested for COVID-19 cannot, even if they are experiencing symptoms. Due to a shortage of kits around the country, testing is reserved for high-priority patients.

Tweets and emails about the frustration of not being able to get a test abound.

One UC Berkeley student wrote to Berkeleyside and described crowded conditions at University Health Services at the Tang Center on Bancroft Way, where very few tests are being given. He expressed frustration about the lack of information about test availability and how he was unable to take his university insurance to other health care providers to find a test.

“Students must start treatment at the Tang Center, but it does not feel safe and the hours have been slashed after the shelter-in-place order,” the student wrote.

If you are experiencing symptoms, stay home and call your doctor. Pictured above: Two masked and gloved security guards stand watch at the entrance of the tented-off ER at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. Photo: Pete Rosos

As of Monday, Berkeley had 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including at least one spread by community contact, but it is likely that the actual number of cases is much higher.

Per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospitals are limiting testing to high-priority groups, such as those exhibiting severe symptoms, with preexisting conditions or who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Health care professionals and the elderly are also likely to have an easier time getting tested.

“The most powerful tool to fight COVID-19 is non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing.” —Matthai Chakko, city spokesman

City officials emphasize that social distancing — not testing — is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.

“We have to understand that testing is not a medicine,” said Matthai Chakko, spokesman for the city of Berkeley, which has its own health department. Chakko warned against socializing in seemingly benign ways, such as playing volleyball with friends or having a picnic. “The most powerful tool to fight COVID-19 is non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing.”

Chakko also warned against overburdening the health care system, especially as infections skyrocket in the United States and throughout the world.

“What we are concerned about is a surge and the overwhelming of our health care system,” said Chakko. “People who have mild illnesses should generally handle them on their own.”

That being said, if you are experiencing potential COVID-19 symptoms, there are several places where you can go to get tested in Berkeley, often for a fee. The first step is to call your regular health care provider, who will evaluate you to determine if you qualify. You might also choose to use this self-triage tool to determine whether it would be prudent to take the next steps. (Scroll down for a list of testing providers.)

There are a few places you can’t go to get tested. If you are experiencing symptoms, do not immediately go to Urgent Care, to the emergency room or other public health locations in Berkeley. Do not call the city of Berkeley’s public health staff expecting a diagnosis.

A week after reporting her symptoms, Jones told Berkeleyside she is feeling a bit better. Though the tightness in her chest hasn’t gone away, she felt well enough to spend Sunday working in her garden, planting broccoli, carrots and chard. She feels much less anxious about her personal situation but is concerned about what’s to come, encouraging community members to take preventative measures like social distancing seriously.

Testing providers in Berkeley

Carbon Health is a health care provider that offers testing to any California resident  — you do not have to be a member. To find out if you qualify, complete the company’s Coronavirus Assessment Tool. Eligible patients will then virtually consult with a health care professional. If approved, patients can then visit the organization’s Berkeley office on Telegraph Avenue. In-office testing fees are covered by insurance, but you should contact your provider to make sure, especially if your provider also conducts test Even this spot has a shortage of tests, though, and needs to triage accordingly. A sign on the door explains that the clinic has “a very limited supply available each day.”

LifeLong Medical Care provides health and social services, including to underserved communities such as low-income, elderly or disabled people. LifeLong offers three “curbside” COVID-19 testing locations in Berkeley and Oakland for LifeLong members who have been pre-screened by staff. The services are offered at no cost, but patients must call first to limit exposure for its staff.

Kaiser Permanente members who feel sick are advised to write their regular doctor through the KP website or complete an e-visit and answer a COVID-19 questionnaire. Those deemed eligible for testing will get referred to Kaiser’s drive-up service at a site in the East Bay (locations and hours are not public). You must be a Kaiser member to be tested. Results take four to seven days. Screening and testing are free for Kaiser members.

Sutter Health installed drive-up testing services this week in Berkeley and Oakland, but the locations are not public. If Sutter is your regular health care provider, contact your doctor to reach the triage assessment hotline. Your doctor will refer you if you are eligible for testing. Sutter promises to waive testing co-pays in advance of the test but may charge patients later.

John Muir Health provides testing to members who have been recommended by a John Muir doctor. Once screened, patients will receive an appointment at an urgent care site in Berkeley or at one of the provider’s three other sites.

OneMedical has offices in Berkeley and Oakland that provide COVID-19 testing to members who meet their eligibility requirements. Patients screened through its online service will be assigned a location and time to provide a sample.

Tang Medical Center at UC Berkeley reports very limited testing capacity for students, and even more limited capacity for the public. As a result, Tang is prioritizing testing where the result could influence decisions about clinical care or isolation housing. In other words, testing will not be considered if the end result is likely to be simply self-isolation. Stringent testing requirements could leave students on the university health plan with limited access to testing. The Tang Center says it is trying to expand its testing capacity. Tang also advises students to get prescreened by calling an advice nurse at 510-643-7197 before coming in.

An update from the county

Update, April 3: Berkeleyside got a brief report from the Alameda County Public Health Department, which has its own lab and operates separately from the city of Berkeley. Neetu Balram, spokeswoman for the agency, said the county lab “runs COVID-19 specimens 6 days per week and is able to process approximately 150 specimens per week.” (There are also other labs in the county running tests.) Balram said the turnaround time is “1-2 business days from specimen receipt, inclusive of Saturday.” The lab is also boosting capacity so it can run up to 16 more specimens per day “with faster turnaround time to address the needs of urgent cases, but supplies for this service will be limited.” The county is focusing on long-term care facilities and those like it, incarcerated populations, hospitalized persons, those at high risk for severe outcomes, health care providers and first responders.

“Alameda County Public Health does not have capacity to perform sample collection from people with suspected COVID-19, except in limited, unique circumstances,” she said.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...