Outside the Eastmont Mall, August 20, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

A massive, free coronavirus testing event that was scheduled to take place this Saturday and Sunday in East Oakland has been canceled due to unsafe air conditions caused by Bay Area wildfires. 

The event, organized by a coalition of Black-led East Oakland community organizations in partnership with U.C. San Francisco, was expected to attract up to 2,000 African-American residents living in the East Oakland flatlands from Seminary Boulevard to the San Leandro border—an area with some of the highest COVID-19 rates in Alameda County. The testing was planned to be outdoors, at Eastmont Mall.

Organizers decided to call off the event on Thursday morning, as soon as it became clear that air quality wouldn’t dramatically improve by the weekend. “This is, unfortunately, a blow that we can’t get around,” said Jamaica Sowell, the director of governmental and community affairs at Roots Community Health Center, one of the groups organizing the event. “We don’t want folks with underlying issues coming into a situation where the air quality is exacerbating their respiratory conditions.”

“The hope was that there would be progress on containment of the fires,” said Dr. Kim Rhoads, director of the UCSF cancer center’s Office of Community Engagement. “Without containment, we knew it would be days and days of ash blowing into the region.”

On Wednesday, the air quality index (AQI) in East Oakland peaked at 181; scores between 151 and 200 are classified as “unhealthy.”

“It’s like a double whammy,” said Sowell. Black people in Alameda County are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups, according to county data, and environmental crises often hit Black and brown communities harder.  “Can we just catch a break to address the disparities in how the pandemic is affecting our community?”

The air quality issue would be troubling even without the pandemic, said Rhoades. “It’s about COVID because COVID is here, but if it weren’t, it’s about the long-term inflammatory effects and the possibility of future cancers. People may not be thinking about that because it seems far off in the future, but the risk of cancer is not insignificant when the AQI is this high.”

Rhoades said the decision to cancel this weekend’s testing was difficult, but the alternative would have meant putting vulnerable residents in harm’s way.

“To ask a group of people—who my institution has documented has high rates of airway disease and asthma—to come out into air quality that is currently worse than Beijing and India—to be exposed to that environment seems unethical and contrary to my role as part of an institution whose job it is to promote health equity,” she said.

The East Oakland event was modeled on previous mass testing mobilizations spearheaded by UCSF in the Bay View, Sunnyvale, and Mission District neighborhoods of San Francisco. The Mission District event, which occurred in April, tested nearly 3,000 residents and workers in that neighborhood. It produced data that helped medical practitioners better understand the impact of the virus in the Latinx community, at a time when Latinx people were just beginning to be recognized as a high-risk group.

In East Oakland, free COVID-19 testing has been available for weeks at several locations, including a Roots walk-up testing site on International Boulevard and 99th Avenue, and at the Allen Temple Baptist Church on 86th Avenue. But a large majority of the people getting tested at those locations haven’t been from the neighborhoods that they were set up to serve. 

Where to get free covid-19 testing in Oakland

Read our guide to getting tested without a doctor’s referral or health insurance.

At Roots, which serves a patient population that is 85-90% African-American, only 20% of the tests so far have been taken by Black Oaklanders. In a way, said Rhoads, the Roots testing site’s mission to be accessible has worked too well.

“By doing exactly what was needed, which is lowering every barrier, Roots has attracted everyone,” said Rhoads. “I work in San Francisco, and I’ve overheard San Franciscans say, ‘Just go to Roots in Oakland.’”

Getting more African-American residents tested, said Rhoads, will require more flexibility to meet people where they are, including more mobile testing and putting familiar faces—neighbors, family members, and friends—front and center in organizing efforts.

“A lot of loved ones don’t watch the news. And so it’s hitting us hard because people don’t understand it.”

Daryle Allums

Daryle Allums, an East Oakland organizer and the founder of Oakland Frontline Healers, a Black-led COVID-19 rapid response coalition, said a lack of awareness and reliable information about COVID-19 in Black communities has also contributed to low testing rates.

“In our community right now, people are not educated about COVID. A lot of loved ones don’t watch the news. And so it’s hitting us hard because people don’t understand it,” said Allums. “There are so many different rumors in our community, and people don’t care until it hits home, unfortunately. So that’s our job, to hit these streets, and educate our people: stay six feet apart, keep your hands clean, wear a mask, protect your family.”

Silver linings

Canceling this weekend’s event was unfortunate, said Allums, but the organizing work that went into it will continue to bear fruit for the East Oakland community in the long term. Oakland Frontline Healers didn’t even exist as an organizing force prior to the pandemic. The group was born after Allums went to a health clinic in East Oakland and saw that residents weren’t wearing masks because they had no PPE. Afterward, he began speaking with other activists and organizations doing work in the community to address COVID-19. 

“In less than two weeks, it was 30 organizations—a church, a doctors’ alliance—all coming together to support the community,” he said. “In Oakland, if you understand the nonprofit organizations, a lot of us fight over money and contracts and grants. So to pull all of these organizations together that just weren’t getting along, it was for the good of our people, and now we’re prepared to deal with any crisis that comes to Oakland.”

Williams said the Oakland Frontline Healers coalition, which now has over 150 volunteers, was brought in to help organize the mass testing event at Eastmont Mall by another grassroots group, The Brotherhood of Elders. That organization’s relationship with UCSF, Allums said, “brought it all together.”

Sowell of Roots Health Center agrees that the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Oakland’s Black communities has brought a sense of urgency to groups working to narrow health equity gaps in East Oakland.

“This is a pandemic. People are dying. People are in crisis. People are being laid off. So literally, when the call came in to collaborate and do this testing, there was no second thought,” Sowell said. “It was all of us saying, what can we do, when can we do it, and we all just moved the work forward collaboratively.”

UCSF and its community partners will hold a virtual community meeting next week to discuss what happens next, with the goal of rescheduling some version of this weekend’s testing event as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said Rhoads. “You don’t bring a coalition together and then walk away from it. We had 210 volunteers ready to go. So the energy and momentum is there. We just need the smoke to clear.” 

Meanwhile, organizers say the pause will give them more time to strategize how to better serve the community with testing, whether that be through one mass event or smaller events that are more mobile and neighborhood-specific.

“I believe that God works in mysterious ways, and maybe it was best for us to refocus and look at other avenues, to make it not so big and go to the neighborhoods,” said Allums. “You have all of these neighborhoods in East Oakland, and they are like mini-villages. In Oakland, people don’t always really get out of their ‘hood like that, you know? Sometimes it’s safety issues. With that being said, we’re ready to go. However it looks, we’ll be ready to go.”

Allums said volunteers from Oakland Frontline Healers and other organizations will be at Eastmont Mall tomorrow to meet residents who may not have heard that the event was canceled. They’ll be distributing flyers with information about how to stay safe during the pandemic, handing out PPE, and letting people know plans are in the works to reschedule. 

“It’s, unfortunately, the card we’re being dealt at this moment,” said Sowell. “But East Oakland is a resilient community. They’ll continue to prevail, and we will reschedule the mass testing so that we can afford our community their basic right—to have this testing and be included in something equitable.”

Jacob Simas is Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.