Cities, a county, and an entire state have shut down coronavirus testing sites or scaled back testing in response to protests against police brutality that are sweeping the nation, a move criticized by public health experts concerned about tracking the spread of COVID-19.
In the greater Los Angeles region, where police have arrested more than 2,700 protesters, dozens of city- and county-run testing sites closed early or closed down completely in recent days. Illinois shut down nearly a dozen community testing sites across the state on Monday and Tuesday. Philadelphia closed its Center City testing site early on Sunday and closed all city-run testing sites on Monday and Tuesday. San Francisco closed a mobile testing site this week, and Jacksonville, Florida, closed at least two testing sites as well.
Public health experts have warned that any drop in testing access right now will thwart efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, just as protests likely trigger new surges in infections.
“Data is our eyes and ears in this pandemic. Without having it, we are operating blindly,” John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve seen the consequences of operating blindly early in this pandemic,” he added, alluding to the fact that the initial failure of the CDC’s coronavirus test and subsequent testing shortfall likely contributed to the outsize impact of the coronavirus in the US.
Testing had been steadily ramping up since April, as states began gradually lifting stay-at-home orders. As case numbers rose, public health experts questioned whether the rise was due to new surges or simply the result of additional testing. Now the calculus has changed again. “If we’re doing a lot less testing, we need to be more cautious” about any changes in reported infections, Swartzberg said.
Any reductions in testing now, combined with new cases emerging from these protests, are “going to muddy the picture of the consequences of reopening, and that’s really unfortunate,” said Ruth Etzioni, a biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “We find ourselves in a really precarious situation with the data.”
Local officials say the decisions to limit testing were largely made to protect the safety of both the people going to get tested and those working at these sites, as some protests turned violent and curfews were put in place.
The decision to close certain sites early or shutter them completely also stands in stark contrast to places like Washington, DC, and Denver that opened new public testing sites this week despite ongoing protests. And in Atlanta and many other locations, officials have opted instead to urge protesters, who face a greater risk of being exposed and spreading the coronavirus, to get tested.
The test site closures in Los Angeles began Saturday afternoon when Mayor Eric Garcetti closed down all of the city’s coronavirus testing sites, citing “safety worries” in the wake of the massive protests taking place in the city. The mayor also imposed curfews, but relegated those only to certain areas of the city, like downtown, where the protests had been taking place.
In a press conference Saturday announcing the new policies, a reporter asked Garcetti why he chose to close testing sites throughout the city, but only apply the curfew to some areas. Garcetti gave a long response focused squarely on the property damage in the city, including the burning of police cars.
"We're not going to stand for people who destroy shop windows,” Garcetti told the press, not directly answering why he chose to close down the testing sites citywide.
Some activists interpreted Garcetti’s answer to mean that he had closed the test sites as a punitive measure in reaction to the property damage, rather than an attempt to protect workers at the site or those getting tested.
LA’s testing sites are normally closed on Sunday. On Monday, the city began reopening two of the testing sites, including at Dodger Stadium, which has the capacity to test more than 6,000 people a day, and has continued to open up a few more sites since then.
A spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti on Wednesday night said that anyone who had appointments for testing at sites that were closed were rescheduled for tests at Dodger Stadium.
Some Los Angeles County-run testing sites also closed early over the weekend. “The Department of Health Services gave discretion to testing sites on whether to stay open or to close in the interest of staff and resident safety,” Kathleen Piche, a county spokeswoman, told BuzzFeed News in an email. This week, some county-run sites have stayed open, while others closed early or completely. The nearby city of Long Beach closed its four testing sites on Monday, citing safety concerns.
In northern California, a mobile testing site was closed in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood but may soon be redeployed to another part of the city. “While testing was scheduled to end Monday, June 1, additional testing was under consideration for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week,” Veronica Vien, a city spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “However, at this time the priority for the Tenderloin community and city partners must be to acknowledge the moment and focus on activism and justice for Black lives.”
In Illinois, the state closed all eleven of its coronavirus testing sites on Monday and Tuesday, as several protests took place in Chicago and the surrounding area. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said that the sites were closed due to “security reassignment.”
“In order to reopen the state-managed Community Based Testing Sites, steps have to be taken to add security at each facility to replace personnel that was reassigned due to ongoing civil unrest throughout the state,” the spokesperson said in an email.
By Wednesday all but one of the testing sites in Illinois had reopened.
Over the weekend, Florida officials made the decision to suspend service at Jacksonville’s Lot J drive-thru testing site and Legends Center walk-up testing site “to ensure public safety.” The sites have since reopened.
In Philadelphia, where police shot tear gas at thousands of protesters, the Center City testing site closed early on Sunday because no one was scheduled to be testing and a curfew was put in place. Due to civil unrest, the city closed on Monday and Tuesday, resulting in the shut down of only city-run testing sites; more than 40 other testing sites across Philadelphia were unaffected. The city and the testing sites it operates have since reopened and officials have been encouraging protesters to get tested.
"Get tested for COVID-19 seven days after having been in a crowd; those seeking testing do NOT need to identify that they were at a protest but instead should say they were near someone who may have had COVID-19,” city officials recommended.
In New York, where testing sites have remained open despite some violent clashes between police and protesters, state officials said they are relying on testing numbers to help them track whether the civil unrest leads to any case spikes.
When asked about whether he expected a spike based on protest images, the state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, said at a Monday press conference: “I'm concerned about them. And we are going to track those numbers because when you gather a lot of people together, as we've always said, that is a concern. So we're looking at this and we’re going to keep a very close eye on every day.”
People protesting “do have a higher risk” of infection, Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told BuzzFeed News, although he added exactly how much higher is impossible to quantify at this point. “The concurrence of two public health emergencies — police violence and this outbreak — is really challenging,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin and other health experts are encouraging protesters to wear masks, abide by social distancing as much as possible, to stay home if they are feeling sick, and to get tested — wherever they can.
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Mayor Garcetti’s spokesperson.