Bay Area COVID-19 testing not equally accessible across races, data analysis shows

ByDan Noyes and John Kelly KGO logo
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Bay Area COVID-19 testing not equally accessible, data analysis shows
A new analysis of COVID-19 testing location data shows many cities across the U.S. are struggling to reach Black and Latinx communities.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Public health officials are scrambling to speed up the rate of coronavirus testing; people across the country routinely wait hours for an exam, if they can get one at all.

But, a new, extensive review of testing sites by our data team shows, sites in communities of color in many major cities face higher demand than sites in whiter or wealthier areas in those same cities

RELATED: California officials explain how state is expanding COVID-19 testing

Our exclusive study shows where you live and how much money you make may determine the ease with which you get a COVID-19 test. But, there are exceptions here in the Bay Area.

The review of testing sites across the country by FiveThirtyEight, ABC News and ABC-owned television stations including ABC7 shows people of color, especially Black and Hispanic people, are more likely to experience longer wait times and understaffed testing centers.

Racial access to Chicago COVID-19 testing locations is mostly equal, according to a data analysis.
Jonathan Fagg

We estimated the potential demand by looking at the number of sites and the number of people living nearest them.

In Los Angeles, for example, test sites serving mostly-black neighborhoods were 26% busier than those serving white neighborhoods, and those serving majority Hispanic neighborhoods were 9%t busier.

In the Bay Area, our analysis found that testing sites serving San Jose's mostly Hispanic neighborhoods were about 20% busier than those serving mostly white neighborhoods.

UC Berkeley Professor of Epidemiology and public health Arthur Reingold told the I-Team, "Well, unfortunately, it's not too surprising."

"This country has a long history of disparities in health and access to health care, with poor people and people in communities of color having less access," said Reingold.

Professor Reingold says one factor driving longer wait times in San Jose's Hispanic neighborhoods is that they are experiencing higher rates of infection, and are presumably eager to get testing.

But, two cities buck that national trend we found.

In San Francisco and Oakland, testing locations near mostly Black census blocks were an estimated 21% less busy on average, than testing sites near mostly-white neighborhoods. In the cities' mostly Hispanic neighborhoods, the testing centers were about 4% less busy than those serving majority-white neighborhoods.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health emailed a statement that reads, in part, "The results of your survey don't square with our perception of the situation, or what we are hearing from the community. I am afraid it is premature to declare victory."

Racial access to Chicago COVID-19 testing locations is mostly equal, according to a data analysis.
Jonathan Fagg

The I-Team also spoke with Mayor Libby Schaaf, about how Oakland has addressed the issue.

Dan Noyes: "Was this a surprise to you that it did turn out so well?"

Mayor Schaaf: "It was encouraging. And I want to say that we have worked with so many phenomenal community-based partners."

Mayor Schaaf said the city:

  • Opened the first walk-up testing site, realizing that drive-up sites were a barrier for many low-income families
  • Did not always require an online appointment
  • Made phone lines available in different languages
  • Intentionally located testing sites where they'd reach people of color.

"We established a COVID-19 racial disparities taskforce immediately," Mayor Schaaf said. "We did not wait for the data to show those racial disparities because we knew about the pre-existing disparities in the risk factors for COVID."

For Asian neighborhoods across San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, our analysis found almost no difference in testing access, compared to predominantly white neighborhoods.

LIST: Here's where you can get tested for COVID-19 in the Bay Area

Here is the complete statement emailed to the I-Team from the San Francisco Department of Public Health:

"While we are doing relatively well in San Francisco, as your survey shows, we continue to focus on improving testing to serve communities most affected by the pandemic and those at highest risk of exposure. The results of your survey don't square with our perception of the situation, or what we are hearing from the community. I am afraid it is premature to declare victory.

It's true that we in San Francisco have very high rates of testing per population compared to other cities and counties in California and the country, but we know that increasing wait times for test appointments and then results is a problem that many people are experiencing during our current surge. Our approach will be to prioritize our city resources to test those at highest risk, and compel private providers and health systems to do more testing of their own patients as directed by a new Health Order.

We also can't emphasize enough that testing is not preventative and not treatment. The MOST IMPORTANT things for everyone to do is wear a mask, avoid gatherings, stay home as much as possible and stay six feet apart from others."

Read the report from FiveThirtyEight: "Want A COVID-19 Test? It's Much Easier To Get In Wealthier, Whiter Neighborhoods"

Contributing: The nationwide data analysis and additional reporting for this story was contributed by a team, including Soo Rin Kim and Matthew Vann of ABC News, Laura Bronner of FiveThirtyEight and Grace Manthey of ABC Owned Television Stations. The full analysis is here and an explanation of how we did it can be found here.

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