Workers install data cable at a new Kaiser Permanente laboratory specifically for COVID-19 under construction in Berkeley. When finished June 1, the 7,700-square-foot lab will be capable of performing 10,000 tests each day. Photo: Doug Oakley/Kaiser

Kaiser Permanente is converting an existing Berkeley warehouse into a $14 million testing site that will be able to process 70,000 tests for COVID-19 each week.

The new lab, at 1795 Second St., will be fully operational by June 1 and will serve as Kaiser’s main testing site in Northern California, according to Dr. Brian Missett, associate executive director of The Permanente Medical Group. It’s separate from a new medical office project on San Pablo Avenue south of Parker Street set to open in 2021.

Berkeley staff worked through the weekend and approved the building permit in just five days after Kaiser submitted its application March 16. The city’s planning department will provide building inspections around the clock, day or night, to maintain the accelerated timeline and have the facility completed in a month, said Timothy Burroughs, director of the city planning and development department.

“This is a project that has the potential to impact the entire region with critical tools in the midst of an unprecedented time,” Burroughs said. “We’re doing everything we can to help Kaiser move this forward.”

Matt Davis, Kaiser Permanente Northern California Construction Manager of Regional Capital Projects Facilities Construction, walks through the lab under construction in Berkeley in April. Photo: Doug Oakley/Kaiser

Testing will be available for Kaiser’s 4.5 million members in Northern California, which includes recipients of Medi-Cal, Covered California and free or reduced-cost community healthcare through Kaiser. The lab will have about a dozen workers and start off by testing patients who are at high risk for contracting the virus, based on guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The tests will produce results in under 24 hours, whereas others have taken anywhere from 10 to 14 days.

Kaiser will broaden the testing to other patients as local jurisdictions begin to relax shelter-in-place restrictions and identifying asymptomatic patients with contact tracing becomes more important. The system is also increasing its in-house testing from 1,000 to 1,500 a day, which includes tests with a 10-minute turnaround for those patients who are already hospitalized.

The new facility will not be processing serology/antibody tests, according to a Kaiser spokesman.

Despite a critical shortage of tests throughout California and the country, Missett said the hospital system is working with multiple vendors to secure diagnostic tests, testing reagents, equipment and supplies to support a capacity of 10,000 tests a day. Kaiser can’t disclose the names of the companies who will provide tests, a hospital spokesman said. Kaiser has previously worked with Roche diagnostics, a massive pharmaceutical company supplying thousands of COVID-19 tests to labs around the globe.

A worker sands drywall at the testing lab under construction in Berkeley. Photo: Doug Oakley/Kaiser

The testing facility is part of a larger plan to combat COVID-19 and increase testing capacity for the months and years to come, as contact tracing becomes a more crucial part of the strategy by local public health departments. In the future, members could get a mobile notification that they should get tested because they were in an area that was exposed to the virus.

“While many private and public groups are working on a system for identifying patients at risk for exposure, we anticipate having the ability to coordinate with potential tracking systems to offer testing for patients at risk for an exposure once those systems are in place,” Missett said.

The Berkeley Public Health Division will be in charge of adopting a contact tracing and tracking system for its residents and has identified contact tracing as one of its priorities, along with increasing testing capacity. Earlier this month, San Francisco introduced a partnership to do widespread contact tracing with DIMAGI, a software company that has worked with the CDC. If Berkeley follows a similar route, Kaiser will work with the city and county to get its members on board.

Separately, but also in West Berkeley, Kaiser has converted a carpentry shop it runs there into a factory to make face shields for the health services provider’s nurses and doctors.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...