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Despite setbacks, East Palo Alto persists in effort for COVID-19 testing site

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Update, May 14, 6:40 p.m.: San Mateo County announced on Thursday that Verily will operate a testing site at the East Palo Alto YMCA on Fridays and Saturdays beginning on May 22.

The Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) in East Palo Alto has many advantages as a potential COVID-19 testing site, according to its leadership. It’s centrally located, with an entrance and exit that make for easy flow of traffic. Board Director Arnold Hart can even see where the testing tents could be set up.

The only problem? The organization can’t find someone to administer the tests at no cost to residents of East Palo Alto, including those who are uninsured and undocumented. 

EHP isn’t the only group facing roadblocks to setting up an accessible testing site in the city. East Palo Alto’s mayor, city council, fire district and other local organizations have been trying to obtain a site for over a month. But their efforts have been met with rejections and setbacks from Stanford, clinics in the area and the California state government. 

But thanks to a collaboration between San Mateo County and local leadership, East Palo Alto may finally have found a company willing to administer the tests at no cost.

While city-by-city testing data is not easily available, community leaders in East Palo Alto agree that its residents are almost certainly not being tested at rates comparable to those in other cities. East Palo Alto had 51 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday, according to San Mateo County, but the true number is likely higher. 

Increased access to testing is crucial, local leaders said, amid efforts to re-open the economy and as COVID-19 disproportionately affects underserved communities. Nearly 12% of East Palo Alto residents are uninsured, and the city is also home to an undocumented population. Residents are wary of traveling out of town to the central San Mateo County or Stanford testing sites, and the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto can only process a few tests a week.

Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones has made it her priority to bring a testing center to East Palo Alto that could provide tests free of charge to everyone, including those who are uninsured and undocumented. 

“It has always been the case that wealth and resources have bought access to things,” Wallace-Jones said. “In a crisis, there is no exception.”

Current testing options ‘inadequate’

Ravenswood Family Health Center, like testing sites in San Mateo and on Stanford’s campus, provides free testing to undocumented and uninsured residents, but none of these sites are close enough to East Palo Altans while also having a high enough testing volume to reliably serve the city’s residents, according to local leaders.

“My neighbors and my friends are worried in this situation because they don’t know where people can come and get tested for coronavirus for free,” said Doroteo Garcia, an East Palo Alto resident. “If you don’t have any insurance, this is a problem.”

San Mateo County offers free testing at the County Event Center, 12 miles away from East Palo Alto, but East Palo Alto City Council Member Lisa Gauthier said there are still hurdles to getting tested for city residents, ranging from needing to pass online pre-screening to having to travel through multiple cities to reach the site.

The free van transport the county offers to the County Event Center is not a solution, according to Gauthier.

“Who is going to feel comfortable enough getting into a van during a pandemic to go to a testing facility with people who are symptomatic?” Gauthier said.

East Palo Altans could get tested at Ravenswood, which is located in the city. But Ravenswood processes only four or five tests per week, and the site is not well-advertised, according to Wallace-Jones. 

Stanford offers testing at a drive-thru site on campus, which can test up to 150 pre-approved patients per day and has the capacity to test more people, according to Stanford Health Care spokesperson Julie Greicius. But Hart said East Palo Altans are reluctant to travel to get tested in an unfamiliar environment.

“The old saying is, ‘If you don’t know anybody, you can’t get connected to anybody and you can’t get service,’” Hart said. 

Community rallies for testing effort

As early as March, community leaders in East Palo Alto were working to set up a testing site. Lesia Preston, executive director at EHP, said the lack of accessible testing has come up “time and time again” with the organization’s staff and board. Those conversations, Preston said, led the organization to offer its parking lot as a testing site and start looking for someone to administer the tests..

“The people that come to us have not been able to get tested,” Preston said. “They’re just trying to stay safe and do preventative measures.”

Menlo Park Fire District Board President Robert Jones said he first became concerned about a lack of testing in the area in late March after reading that people of color were dying of COVID-19 at higher rates. Jones, a black resident of East Palo Alto, said the news “hit home a little harder.”

He reached out to Gauthier, Wallace-Jones and Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor to discuss potential solutions. The group explored options like having Stanford or Ravenswood serve as test providers. But both fell through.

Stanford told East Palo Alto it did not have the capacity to send doctors to the city to perform tests, according to Gauthier. Greicius, the Stanford Health Care spokesperson, declined to confirm Stanford told East Palo Alto it was unable to administer the test site.

Ravenswood also said it did not have the capacity, according to Wallace-Jones. Ravenswood did not respond to The Daily’s multiple requests for comment.

California regulations governing COVID-19 testing sites require that test providers have appropriate licensure or registration, meet certain test validation requirements and report results back to the state.

Wallace-Jones said that while private centers have expressed a willingness to administer the tests, the processing costs would require that the city charge residents, an unacceptable outcome.

The city received word last month of a potential breakthrough in obtaining a testing site. 

On April 22, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to open 86 new testing sites, prioritizing underserved areas with low testing access. Five days later, Wallace-Jones said San Mateo County had selected both East Palo Alto and Daly City to receive testing sites. 

“I feel hopeful that we will get our problem resolved in the next one to two weeks,” Wallace-Jones said in a late April interview. “We can see our way toward light at the end of this tunnel.”

That night, Wallace-Jones said she learned that the East Palo Alto test center had been denied by the state. 

The California Department of Public Health and Public Affairs wrote that it was unaware of such a denial and that testing sites were selected in coordination with county officials. County spokesperson Michelle Durand declined to confirm the denial or comment on a rationale. Wallace-Jones did not respond to The Daily’s multiple subsequent requests for comment.

Back to the drawing board

Preston was disappointed when city officials told her that the East Palo Alto test center had been denied. Previously, city officials had told EHP that East Palo Alto was selected to receive a testing site, according to Preston, and the organization had responded by reminding officials that EHP was still available to host. 

Hart said he understands that politicians sometimes have to walk things back.

“That doesn’t mean we’re giving up,” Hart said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen. We’re still knocking on the door, we’re still pushing the envelope, and I think it’s still going to happen.”

The fire district had to go back to the drawing board to set up a test site in the city, after East Palo Alto’s selection and rejection, according to Jones.

Jones said he was now working with Wallace-Jones and Taylor to identify potential testing sites, and had identified promising venues in East Palo Alto: a fire district warehouse, Cooley landing and the parking lot near Office Depot. The fire district has also scouted sites near Willow road and the Facebook campus, according to Jones.

The two mayors and the fire district are now working with San Mateo County to settle on a location, according to Gauthier. The tests would be offered for free by Verily, the operator of the testing site at the San Mateo Event Center, and paid for by the state of California, according to Durand. For now, this might be East Palo Alto’s best hope at getting a testing site. 

And until then, many East Palo Alto residents will continue to go without testing.

“To be able to have testing take place, well, that’s all I wanted,” Hart said. “I just wanted it in the community.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that Stanford Health Care declined to confirm that Stanford told East Palo Alto it would be unable to administer a testing site. A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that Greicius declined to confirm Gauthier’s statement. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Kate Selig at kselig ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Kate Selig '23 is a news desk editor. Questions, comments, concerns? Send her an email at kselig 'at' stanford.edu.