Last week, a small town in Northern California’s Marin County unveiled free coronavirus testing for all residents, making the unincorporated coastal hamlet of Bolinas one of the first communities in the world to trial mass testing.
Infectious disease researchers at the University of California, San Francisco conducted the tests after being approached by Bolinas residents Jyri Engeström, a venture capitalist, and Cyrus Harmon, a pharmaceutical executive. Inspired by the mass testing in the northern Italian town of Vo Euganeo, which flattened its COVID-19 curve while infection rates skyrocketed elsewhere in Italy, Engeström coordinated a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a pop-up testing site in Bolinas, whose population is under 2,000 compared to Vo Euganeao’s 3,000-plus residents.
Drive-through tests were administered over four days in Bolinas, with some 700 residents receiving tests within the first two days. The procedure included both nasal and oral swabs to test for the virus and fingertip pricks to test for antibodies. Researchers hope that the results will provide insight into the way the coronavirus has, and continues to, spread.
The rural enclave is particularly suited to the study: Before making headlines for its testing efforts, the remote, insular town, which is primarily accessible via unmarked roads, was best known for its residents’ tendencies to tear down highway signs identifying its location in an attempt to dissuade visitors.
Bolinas homeowner Elisabeth Roberts first learned about the project after driving past a sandwich board advertising free COVID-19 testing, which was set up at the local fire station. “They papered the town with information,” she says, noting that signs were placed in highly visible areas, including near the town entrance, to encourage everyone to get tested.
Word of mouth was also key. “If you’d go to the coffee cart, or go get something at the grocery store, everybody was like, ‘Are you getting tested? Are you getting tested?’”
Roberts, a nurse who had also been tested a couple of weeks prior at California Pacific Medical Center, commended the testing efforts. “They did a bang-up job,” she says, praising the volunteers who facilitated everything from directing traffic through the four-lane testing site to providing testees with surgical masks and administering the actual tests. “They were very thorough,” she says, noting that she and her family were “in and out in 15 minutes. All five of us.”
This past weekend, similar pop-up testing was organized in a section of San Francisco’s Mission District to help researchers study the virus’s spread in urban, as well as rural, areas. The joint efforts are the latest in a series of model attempts by the Bay Area to quell the coronavirus crisis.
While California Governor Gavin Newsom has been applauded for his response to the pandemic, San Francisco Mayor London Breed has been the subject of significant praise for her swift and dramatic action to combat the coronavirus outbreak, despite initial criticism.
In late January, more than a month before the city had any confirmed cases, Breed activated emergency operations in San Francisco. In late February, she declared a state of emergency, marking the first major city to do so. Shortly after San Francisco recorded its first coronavirus patients, on March 17, Breed announced shelter-in-place orders with fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the Bay Area. This was done five days before New York City, which then had over 10,000 cases, adopted similar lockdown measures.
According to data compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, which tracked the number of weekly reported coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in major metropolitan areas in the United States, the Bay Area’s flattened curve has held comparatively steady, with both infection and fatality rates remaining relatively low. To date, San Francisco County represents 1,408 of California’s 43,464 confirmed cases and 22 of its 1,755 deaths compared to Los Angeles County’s 19,528 cases and 913 deaths.
While San Francisco’s low numbers are a testament to the decisive action of city officials, there is the caveat that California has not been testing as ubiquitously as epicenters like New York.
Some have criticized the recent testing efforts in Bolinas as evidence of the inequalities of the nationwide wealth disparity, much as San Francisco and the Bay Area have often been maligned for income inequality in recent years. Nonetheless, the testing efforts have the potential to shed critical light on the novel coronavirus.
By testing all Bolinas residents, among them both multimillionaires like Engeström and Harmon and a sizeable homeless population, as well as residents of San Francisco’s socioeconomically and ethnically diverse Mission District, researchers hope to collect data that will benefit not just the Bay Area but the entire world.