Several tents set up behind busy, wide road
Members of Berkeley’s homeless outreach team (HOT) have been visiting homeless individuals to identify those who may be at risk for COVID-19. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley are teaming up to expand the availability of COVID-19 testing.

Berkeley is opening a testing site in West Berkeley in partnership with LifeLong Medical Care to test first responders such as firefighters, police, nurses and essential city employees. But testing will also be made available to vulnerable members of the community, said Dr. Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s public health officer.

“That includes people I am concerned about who have less access to medical care because they are either uninsured or underinsured and don’t normally seek access to care,” she said. “Those could be individuals who are in encampments or are not connected with a health care provider. Other individuals who fall into that group are people in … skilled nursing facilities … and people with chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure lung disease or are immunocompromised in one way or another.”

People taking the tests will be able to get results within 24 hours. That’s because the samples will be rushed to a new pop-up diagnostic lab at Shattuck and Hearst avenues set up last week at UC Berkeley. Scientists from the Innovative Genomics Institute, run by Jennifer Doudna, converted lab space used for CRISPR research into a robotic lab that can test for COVID-19. When the lab is fully functioning, it will be able to process 1,000 tests a day. (Doudna was this week awarded a 2020 Guggenheim fellowship.)

“One of the things this IGI lab at UC Berkeley has for us is they’re quick, they’re efficient and they validate their tests,” said Hernandez. “They are a great partner and they are in our back yard.”

Currently, the lab is in start-up mode, according to Robert Sanders, the manager of science communications at UC Berkeley News. It has processed swabs taken from a few dozen UC Berkeley students as well as some from Berkeley firefighters. Eventually, the lab plans to offer its services to medical centers around the region, he said.

People won’t be able to walk in off the street to get tested but must be referred by the city or be referred by LifeLong Medical Care, said Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman —  which explains why its location is not being made public. Berkeley hopes to be able to test as many as 150 people a day, said Mayor Jesse Arreguín in a Wednesday YouTube video. People without insurance can call LifeLong to sign up as a patient at 510-981-4100.

(A private lab in South Berkeley, Carbon Health, has just announced it is offering rapid testing for people with symptoms.)

Since the outbreak of the virus, it has been extremely hard to get tested locally. Usually, only vulnerable people showing symptoms can get a test. There is also a huge backlog of test results, although California has been making progress on the rate it processes tests. On Thursday, Gov. Newsom said 14,000 COVID-19 tests are waiting to be processed.

The logjam and the low number of tests of the general community make it difficult for health officials to know how widespread the virus is, as the lab-confirmed cases are probably only a fraction of the cases in the community. With this new test site, Berkeley hopes to expand the data it has, which should let it develop “scientific models to determine how and when cases may increase and how to prepare for those outcomes,” said Hernandez.

In the three days the site has been open, about 56 Berkeley firefighters and city staff members have been tested, according to Fire Chief Dave Brannigan. The city intends to test all its firefighters and police officers since they interact with the public and could be COVID-19 positive but asymptomatic, he said.

“We’re interested in knowing across the board if any officers or firefighters are carrying but are not symptomatic,” said Brannigan. It should take until the end of next week to test all the firefighters but longer for the police force, which has gone to a modified schedule to reduce officers’ exposure, he said.

Currently, medical staff from Berkeley’s Public Health Department as well as from LifeLong Medical Care are administering the tests, said Hernandez. Firefighters and some city staff will start staffing the testing site next week, said Brannigan.

For the past few weeks, members of a city homeless outreach team have been going to homeless encampments to talk to people about how to stay safe during this time, said Chakko. The outreach team, which includes either a public health nurse or a nurse practitioner,  has identified high-risk individuals who are living on the street. LifeLong Medical Care workers started a similar outreach program today, according to Lucile Bazile, the deputy director of LifeLong. The two teams will soon collaborate, said Hernandez.

If homeless individuals are suffering from COVID-19, they will be able to use some of the hotel rooms that the state of California has rented near the Oakland airports. The city has installed 10 new trailers for the homeless or “medically frail individuals” at 701 Harrison St. in West Berkeley to supplement the trailers the city already has on University Avenue. These 18 trailers are for homeless individuals who have contracted COVID-19, or are suspected to be infected, to isolate themselves. The city is also renovating a house for this purpose, he said.

Update, 6:20 p.m. Hernandez called Berkeleyside to clarify the arrangement between Berkeley, LifeLong Medical Care and UC Berkeley. She said the original article was wrong in stating that Berkeley was paying LifeLong for services.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...