Tayo, a dentist and volunteer from LifeLong Medical, administers a COVID-19 test at the West Berkeley Service Center, May 21, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley residents are getting tested for COVID-19 infections at lower rates than people living elsewhere in the Bay Area, a Berkeleyside analysis has found.

Berkeley is one of just three cities in the state with its own public health department, meaning that more granular testing data is available for it than in most other cities. Public health services are generally provided by counties, so testing data is largely available only at the county level.

The Bay Area county with the highest testing rate to date is San Francisco, which had done about 5,600 tests per 100,000 people as of this week. Marin, Sonoma, Napa and San Mateo counties have done 3,200-3,900 tests per 100,000 people. Alameda County (excluding Berkeley) and Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Contra Costa and Solano counties have completed 2,100-3,000 tests per 100,000 people.

And then there’s Berkeley which, as of Friday, had completed just 1,800 COVID-19 tests per 100,000 people since the outbreak began, according to Berkeleyside’s analysis. As of Friday, 78 Berkeley residents had lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections. One person had died. Berkeley has a 4% positive rate, which is lower than the Bay Area and state averages, and has also seen lower infection and death rates than any of the other health jurisdictions in the area. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to see a table with all the data.)

Testing is one of five indicators local health officers are tracking as part of their efforts to determine how well the Bay Area is prepared to respond to COVID-19 and when shelter-in-place rules can be loosened. Other indicators include cases and hospitalizations, hospital capacity, contact tracing and personal protective gear supplies.

On the testing front, the health officers have established a goal of completing at least 200 COVID-19 viral detection tests each day per 100,000 residents. This would mean 245 tests per day in Berkeley. Thus far, although it loosened rules earlier this week in line with the rest of the Bay Area, Berkeley is far from meeting the testing goal. In May, Berkeley has reported an average of about 52 tests of its residents each day.

Alameda County’s Public Health Department has said its goal is to conduct 3,100 tests per day and that it is currently doing an average of 1,000-1,100 each day as of this week.

Lifelong Medical volunteers administer drive-through COVID-19 testing at the West Berkeley Service Center, May 21, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

COVID-19 testing can happen in any number of places, including through one’s primary care provider, at a municipal testing site or via a private laboratory. Unlike Berkeley, some California cities have had the benefit of the opening of new state-supported testing sites since the outbreak began. Some counties have expanded their testing to include asymptomatic people. For the most part, that hasn’t happened yet in Berkeley.

The city of Berkeley does operate a testing site, in collaboration with LifeLong Medical and UC Berkeley, which launched in April. Initially, the lab was open only to first responders and uninsured people with COVID-19 symptoms. A month or so later, in early May, Berkeley expanded its testing to all symptomatic people who live or work in the city, though it has continued to urge anyone with primary care providers to start there first.

As of Friday, 2,205 COVID-19 tests of Berkeley residents had been completed since the coronavirus outbreak began, according to city data. The city reports testing data on its website for anyone who lives in Berkeley, no matter who did the tests: primary care providers, UC Berkeley, the city testing site or other labs.

A number of readers have asked Berkeleyside to find out how many of those tests were actually done by the city. As of this week, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko, the city testing site had completed about 600 COVID-19 tests since April 7 (as of Thursday). That works out to an average of about 100 tests per week in the past six weeks.

Chakko said the city site has the capacity to book 130 tests per day. That would allow for the completion of up to 650 tests each week. But demand has been relatively low.

Last week, the lab received about 95 calls from people in the community who wanted to be tested, Chakko said. After screening them, the city set up appointments for 41 people.

There was no immediate explanation Friday as to why more people aren’t being tested at the city site. Berkeley residents might be getting more tests through primary providers, or it may be that people with symptoms do not realize testing options have expanded since the early days of the pandemic.

“There are many different things it could be,” Chakko said. “We have capacity and I would certainly encourage anybody who has symptoms who wants to get tested to call us.” (Those with health insurance should start with their own provider, he reiterated.)

In addition to first responders, the uninsured and underinsured, and Berkeley residents and workers with COVID-19 symptoms, Chakko said, the city has now expanded access to its testing program to anyone — with or without symptoms — in Berkeley homeless shelters or skilled nursing facilities, one of which reported two COVID-19 cases this week. The city would like to expand testing to more asymptomatic people at some point, Chakko said, but is “not ready yet.”

Chakko said the city wants to reach more people through its testing program but said there are no immediate plans to broaden the current criteria. He said conversations are ongoing about how to expand to the “next tier of people,” but declined to share details Friday about what that might be because those discussions remain underway.

In response to a question from Berkeleyside, he said there are no plans to expand to the testing of geographic areas, such as a census tract, to gauge the extent of community spread. Some other Bay Area cities — including San Francisco and Santa Cruz — have made data available online about what percentage of their cases are believed to have been transmitted through community spread.

That level of detail was not available Friday from the city of Berkeley. Neither it nor Alameda County post transmission data online.

But officials are already well aware that there is community spread in Berkeley, Chakko said.

Alameda County is the only Bay Area county that does not post any of its testing data online on its COVID-19 dashboard. A county health official did provide the county’s overall testing figure to Berkeleyside by request.

If Berkeley did not post testing data on its website, little information would be available about local testing.

Chakko stressed repeatedly on Friday that the city’s goal with testing has primarily been to offer it to people who cannot get tested through their primary providers. The city has also been doing everything it can, he said, to encourage health care providers like Kaiser and Sutter to conduct more tests on its members.

“We’re not the test site for everybody,” he said. “We were concerned about people who don’t have access through private providers and tried to fill this on our own as a city. We are jumping in to fulfill a number of different roles that we’ve never done before on such a scale. And it’s dramatic. It’s breathtaking to some degree. We are taking on an unprecedented challenge.”

Chakko also noted Friday that testing for COVID-19 infections continues to ramp up. Average daily tests of Berkeley residents increased by 22% this week compared to last week.

This week also saw the steepest single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, with six new cases recorded as of the end of the day Thursday. Most days, Berkeley has seen an average of just one new case per day.

Chakko said he had no information Friday about the reason for the one-day spike, but said increased testing and a loosening of shelter-in-place rules mean more cases are to be expected. Earlier this week, the city allowed more operations related to retail, manufacturing and warehouses to resume if they follow certain criteria.

“These are large segments of our population that are now moving about in our community,” Chakko said. “As part of that, what we’ve tried to emphasize is there’s a greater urgency for people to be cautious.”

Appropriate social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, Chakko said, “are precautions that are even more urgent now as people are moving around.”

See the data

The Berkeleyside data appears below.

[table id=52 /]

View this data in a spreadsheet.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...