Officials at the Clovis Unified School District northeast of Fresno said they have struggled to secure enough rapid tests for their 43,000 students. In addition to required masking and daily health screenings, the schools there routinely test students involved in extracurricular activities and are gearing up to begin testing faculty weekly. The schools also shorten the 10-day quarantine period by three days if a student can prove they are COVID-negative.
But the Clovis district was notified earlier this month that the state may not be able to fill its test kit order, spokesperson Kelly Avants said. “We got our order in and heard within a day or two that the state was no longer accepting additional orders because they were out,” Avants said.
Early this month, the Clovis district contacted more than 40 vendors in search of rapid test kits. Nobody had any in stock and wouldn’t until at least October, maybe even December. Eventually, the state was able to fulfill the district’s order.
“Like so many other supply chains right now, it is unpredictable,” Avants said.
The district has about a two-week supply of tests, and expects a delivery of 12,800 more from a private vendor soon.
Without rapid testing readily available publicly, some parents are spending hundreds of dollars to monitor their kids’ health.
Nayamin Martinez, a parent in Clovis Unified, received an email several weeks ago that a child in her daughter’s classroom tested positive for COVID-19.
It was a Friday afternoon, and the family’s local Kaiser testing clinic was closed. Even with insurance, Martinez couldn’t find a rapid test kit or same-day appointment anywhere. She also knew that results from a PCR test wouldn’t come until the following Monday or Tuesday and didn’t want to keep her daughter out of school needlessly.
Martinez wound up taking her to urgent care and paying $270 for the rapid test — and her peace of mind.
Hundreds of testing sites shut down
The California Department of Public Health says there’s a glut of PCR testing capacity. Thousands of same-day appointments for the tests are available through the state testing website, and more tests are processed daily now than during the winter surge. OptumServe, which manages the state’s testing efforts, works with the state to monitor demand and offer drive-thru, mobile and fixed site options, health officials told CalMatters.
Yet many Californians complain that they can’t find an appointment or a rapid test. The issue: As government-run mass testing sites have closed, it’s not always clear to people where new locations have sprung up.
“You end up with barriers to access that have less to do with capacity and more to do with lack of information,” said Dr. Jorge Caballeros, a physician and founder of Coders Against COVID, a volunteer group that crowdsources a directory of test sites nationally.
“More of the testing has shifted from a government-based or public health service and become privatized. A lot has shifted to primary care physicians, health systems and to companies that are running these tests,” he said.
According to the Coders Against COVID database, 900 testing sites have closed in California since April 2020, and that’s likely an undercount.
Photo, left: a rapid antigen COVID-19 test is used on patients at Canal Alliance’s test site in San Rafael. Photo by Penni Gladstone for CalMatters
Working-class and immigrant communities that often face technological or language barriers are struggling with the shifting test locations and longer turnaround times. Community organizations have been left to fill the gaps with what little supplies they have left.
“We’re still the only organization in Marin County that’s doing rapid testing for free, and I don’t understand why,” said Yolanda Oviedo, COVID-19 response manager at Canal Alliance. “It’s been really hard for us to maintain.”
Canal Alliance, which provides an array of services for the Latino community in Marin, offers rapid testing two days a week.
Oviedo said the group received 5,000 test kits from the state in May and have used more than 3,000. Demand has grown since August, and they have resorted to limiting testing to 100 people per day in order to make supplies last as long as possible.
People seeking tests at the site are frequently turned away. It’s a tough decision, especially when they know community members are desperate, said Marina Palma, San Rafael City Schools board member and volunteer at Canal Alliance.
“We have people coming to test with us from Richmond, Petaluma, Novato, San Francisco,” Palma said.
Increasingly, employers, like Amtrak and Goldman Sachs, are requiring proof of vaccination or negative test results, and many workers can’t afford to miss a day of work.
“When you go to other places, it takes two days for the results. Two days means a lot for those families who work labor,” Palma said. “If they don’t have that verification, they can’t support their families.”
It’s a similar story in the Central Valley, where Martinez, the Clovis parent, is the executive director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Her organization, which partnered with UC Davis, is the only place in Yolo, Stanislaus, Madera and Fresno counties offering rapid tests.
Several weeks ago they, too, started capping the tests at 100 per day.
“When I heard we were capping (tests), I asked ‘Why don’t you order more?’ They said ‘There’s no more to order. They’re on backlog,’” Martinez said.
Many of the people they test have Medi-Cal or are uninsured, and are unable to get appointments at local health clinics. Routine testing for employers isn’t necessarily covered by insurance.
Everyday around 5 a.m., people start calling Martinez, desperately searching for a free test. “It’s bureaucracies after bureaucracies. It’s exhausting,” she said.
Our health care reporting is supported by the California Health Care Foundation, Blue Shield of California Foundation, California Wellness Foundation, and the California Endowment.