COVID testing in the SF Bay Area is chaos. What to know.

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Lines wrapped around multiple blocks at COVID-19 testing sites around the San Francisco Bay Area at the start of this week, as everyone from teachers and students to restaurant workers sought testing amid an omicron surge that started over the holidays. 

San Francisco’s popular Alemany Farmers Market testing site, which has been a go-to source for people seeking last-minute testing without an appointment, closed to drop-ins Tuesday. A weekly pop-up on Treasure Island that usually doesn’t have long waits ran out of PCR tests and had a 2-hour wait for a rapid test Tuesday afternoon. At Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, which requires appointments, the line of cars stretched across four blocks yesterday and the wait was an hour or more. 

Test demand is skyrocketing, with case counts reaching new heights. An average of 829 San Franciscans a day are contracting COVID-19, as of Dec. 27 — that’s more than double that of last winter’s peak at 373 cases per day, the city said. San Francisco’s COVID-19 hospitalization numbers are starting to increase, but experts have said they haven’t risen as high as they likely would with a more severe strain. 

People in automobiles wait in line to get a drive-through COVID-19 test at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 4, 2022. The line stretched more than three blocks causing people to wait over an hour to receive a PCR COVID test.

People in automobiles wait in line to get a drive-through COVID-19 test at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 4, 2022. The line stretched more than three blocks causing people to wait over an hour to receive a PCR COVID test.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

To help meet demand, SF Mayor London Breed announced Tuesday testing sites affiliated with the Department of Public Health are expanding to more than 25,000 tests a week, almost double its capacity from three weeks ago.

Amid the testing chaos, we answered some questions you may have below. Please send more questions to [email protected]


Who should get tested?

If you are fully vaccinated and don’t feel sick, health officials say you generally do not need to get tested — especially now when many people who need to get tested can’t get access. If you feel sick and have symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you get tested even if you’re vaccinated.

You’re also advised to get tested if you had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. If you’re fully vaccinated, officials recommend testing five to seven days after you were exposed.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said it is prioritizing disaster service workers and symptomatic individuals for testing.

Where can I get tested?

You can go directly to your health care provider such as Kaiser Permanente or Sutter Health for testing, but keep in mind that appointments are hard to find. Pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS also provide testing. 

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For more testing options, consult resources from your county that may offer unique testing opportunities at community and pop-up clinics.

-Find testing information for Alameda County.
-Find testing information for Contra Costa County.
-Find testing information for Marin County.
-Find testing information for Napa County.
-Find testing information for San Francisco
-Find testing information for San Mateo County.
-Find testing information for Santa Clara County.
-Find testing information for Sonoma County.
-Find testing information for Solano County.

Where can I buy at-home COVID tests?

Over-the-counter antigen tests can be purchased online or at most pharmacies and give you results in 15 minutes. They’re not as reliable as PCR tests, but they’re likely to catch COVID when people are at their most contagious.

These tests have been selling out quickly. Check with your local pharmacy to find out when they are going to receive a new shipment. You can also order them online. 

Will the federal government, the state of California or my county be offering free at-home COVID tests?

President Joe Biden promised Americans last month 500 million free rapid home-testing kits. Biden said the federal government would launch a website; this hasn’t been launched yet. 

 The California Department of Public Health told SFGATE it does not have information available at this time on free testing kits.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said Tuesday it has “ordered test kits from suppliers to support first responders and the most vulnerable, such as residents and staff of skilled nursing facilities.” These are slated to be available in mid-January.

I have a student with symptoms. Can my family get tested through the school district?

Most school districts are offering testing options for students and families. Check with your student’s school district for availability. San Francisco Unified School District, for example, is offering PCR testing kits for students who are symptomatic or had a close contact. “The testing kit entails a nose swab and then is to be deposited into a receptacle for the lab to pick up and process,” the district said in an email. “The results are available in 24-36 hours.”

Where can I get tested to meet travel requirements?

Many testing sites that offer PCR tests are running behind and cannot guarantee test results with in a certain time period. If you need a negative test for travel — for example the United Kingdom requires one two days before your plane to England departs — you need to make sure that the site can guarantee a turnaround before your flight.

Joshua Price, center, waits in for COVID-19 testing in the international terminal of the San Francisco International Airport on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif.

Joshua Price, center, waits in for COVID-19 testing in the international terminal of the San Francisco International Airport on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif.

Aric Crabb/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

You also need to key into your destination’s specific testing requirements and ensure that your test result meets them. For example, Hawaii will accept test results only from testing partners that are considered trusted (see list at HawaiiCOVID19.com).

While testing is free or covered by insurance at many testing sites, you may have to pay up to $100 or more for a test at a location that guarantees a faster turnaround. Airport websites are a good resource for sites guaranteeing certain turnaround times. For example, the San Francisco International Airport lists three options, including Work Site Labs, which offers results within 1.5 hours for $250.

The Oakland International Airport directs passengers traveling to Hawaii and who need a negative test to the the CityHealth website

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