Oakland resident Jimmy Mack, who got a COVID-19 test through Roots Community Health Center this week, said the new test site will greatly help East Oakland. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

A COVID-19 test site where anyone can be tested, free of charge, opens on May 6 in deep East Oakland. A second test site is planned to open in the near future. The test sites are a welcome resource for a part of Alameda County that has been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Roots Community Health Center’s clinic at 9925 International Blvd is operating one of the new test sites. “We serve primarily the low-income population, mostly of African descent and especially focusing on East Oakland,” said Roots Community Health Center CEO Dr. Noha Aboelata. “A lot of our patients walk to the clinic, and that’s why it was so important for us to have a walk-up clinic.”

Roots began trial tests late last month, administering roughly 30 tests in one day in the clinic’s parking lot. Their second day of trials was on May 4, and roughly 40 tests were conducted. Now, testing will happen every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Scroll down for more info on where, when, and how to get tested at various sites in deep East Oakland, east of High Street.)

Jimmy Mack, a musician who used to front The Legendary O’Town Passions, received a test in the Roots parking lot earlier this week. He joked after getting tested that they “done burn our noses out,” referring to the discomfort of the nasal swab. Mack said the test site will greatly help East Oakland, and he was happy to help it launch.

“We already have the virus of racism, but I have to do my part and take the chance to know that I’m safe,” said Mack. “Then I can be part of the solution.”

Roots currently has testing capacity at three of their sites, as well as at their two youth clinics, the Dreamcatcher Youth Shelter and the Covenant House. They have also been conducting tests at homeless encampments through their street-medicine mobile clinic. Roots staffers aim to conduct 100 to 250 tests a day at the International Boulevard location.

The new test site is a partnership between Roots, the City of Oakland and the nonprofit CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), which has been providing technical assistance and support at the walk-up site. 

Roots’ East Oakland test site will use Verily’s new Baseline COVID-19 Platform for both online sign-ups and drop-in testing. Verily is a biotech company run by Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Community members who are not Roots patients, or who already have a primary-care provider, can make an online appointment with Verily ahead of time before showing up at the Roots clinic test site. Aboelata said they’ll need to make an account, provide their email address and bring ID to their appointment. 

People who are already Roots patients do not need to make an appointment. ID is recommended, but not required.

Oakland resident Dinyal New happened to be driving by Roots’ clinic on Monday when a banner advertising COVID-19 testing caught her eye. She decided to participate. 

“People were complaining before that it was so hard to get a test, and they were getting pushed away when they had symptoms,” said New. “Now, they have people waiting for you to come in and get tested.”

As part of the process of getting tested, New said medical staff asked if she had recently traveled out of the country, whether she had been around someone who was exposed to or had COVID-19, and whether she had a cough, fever or headache. She was also asked for her name, date of birth, Social Security number, address and telephone number. Since New volunteers to help the unsheltered community, she plans to get tested once a month.

“The workers were very informative,” said New. “I was in and out in ten minutes.”

Aboelata said people in East Oakland communities can feel distrustful of institutions, including healthcare clinics. Now, with the pandemic and related barrage of information, it can be even harder to know who or what to trust. 

“Roots is a very trusted entity,” said Aboelata. “We sought to overcome barriers from the beginning by being from the community and having staff that reflect the community.”

Jimmy Mack gets tested for COVID-19 at Roots’ International Boulevard clinic. Photo: Sarah Belle Lin

Given that high blood pressure is a top diagnosis among adult patients at the Roots, it was a huge concern when hypertension was reported as a risk factor related to COVID-19. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic lung disease, other common diagnoses common among Roots’ patients, can also exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms.

The need for the new test site became clear in April, when Roots staff asked the city whether it was possible to send individuals recently released from jail and prison to get tested at a city-run test site at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. Aboelata said there was a concern many people reentering the community from jails could be infected with COVID-19 and there was a need to test them. The city circled back to Roots not long after, asking whether the health clinic would be interested in running a testing site in East Oakland.

Askia Muhammad, director of navigation services at Roots, began his career in social work as a street-outreach worker in San Francisco in 1982 during the AIDS epidemic. He said Roots’ approach is to understand and overcome barriers that contribute to poor health outcomes. “We’ve never operated a walk-up testing site,” said Muhammad. “That’s pretty big for a community with historical health disparities.”

As testing continues, Aboelata said isolation and contact tracing for positive patients will be critical to prevent further spread of the virus. Contact tracing is a disease control measure employing a trained workforce to identify COVID-19 positive individuals and others who might have been exposed to them.  “We’ve been building capacity at all of our sites,” said Aboelata. “We’re thinking even more about contact tracing now that testing capacity is increasing.”

LifeLong Medical Care, where over 80% of patients are people of color, has also been conducting coronavirus tests in East Oakland. According to LifeLong’s deputy director Lucinda Bazile, LifeLong has conducted hundreds of COVID-19 tests at their East Oakland site, at 10700 MacArthur Blvd, in addition to two other locations. Testing supplies have been provided by UC Berkeley. 

LifeLong will be conducting testing Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Results are usually ready within 24 to 72 hours.

“The primary focus has been for our patients and for individuals who are underinsured or uninsured and who don’t have access to care or a medical home,” said Bazile.

Allen Temple Baptist Church, at 8501 International Blvd, will open another test site with LifeLong’s assistance in the near future. Tests will be free and open to the general public.

“Health education has been a core tenet of what we have advocated for at Allen Temple for decades,” said Rev. Charlotte Williams. “Tests should not be limited to higher tax bracket zip codes. If you need a test, you shouldn’t have to go that far to get tested.”

“I’m relieved that there will be a testing site there,” said neighbor Keimarceon Carson, who lives next to the church. “It’s a blessing at this moment so we can get some peace of mind.” 

According to Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid, the testing site at Allen Temple will be a drive-through testing site open to the public. Reid said the mayor’s office will be releasing a press release soon with more details. Undocumented residents are eligible to receive testing.

The city of Oakland already has two testing sites for essential workers, first responders, and city employees. Dr. Nicholas Moss of Alameda County Public Health Department said while the city of Oakland is currently conducting hundreds of COVID-19 tests daily, the goal is to conduct 2,500 tests a day. Many in the East Oakland community praised the efforts of local groups to ramp up testing, but believe it should have been done sooner.

“They should have opened up the testing site when the outbreak started to prevent deaths,” said Zyikiea Dancy, who lives across the street from Allen Temple Baptist Church. “It’s traumatizing for everybody.”

Correction: the opening date for the test site at Allen Temple Baptist Church has been rescheduled from May 10 to an undetermined future date.

Freelancer Sarah Belle Lin is an independent journalist and photographer based in the East Bay.