Organizers are hoping the air quality improves enough to move forward with a mass COVID testing event in the Fruitvale District on Sept. 12 and 13. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Update [Sept. 10, 4:25 p.m.]: Organizers of the Sanando Juntos: Fruitvale have announced that the mass COVID testing event, which was scheduled to take place on Sept. 12 and 13, has been postponed due to poor air quality. A new date for the testing event is expected to be confirmed within the next several weeks.

Interested residents can sign up to receive direct updates here.

If you have any questions or concerns, please call 415-506-7563 or email info@unitedinhealthoakland.org.

More information about the Sanando Juntos: Fruitvale campaign can be viewed on the Oakland United in Health website.

[Original article]

A large-scale, free, coronavirus testing event is scheduled to take place this Saturday and Sunday in Fruitvale, an area of Oakland with disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection. But the event, which organizers are hoping will draw 3,000 to 4,000 residents from the immediate neighborhood, may need to be postponed if the poor air quality being caused by wildfire smoke continues into the weekend.

“If it holds like this, I would probably recommend to the steering committee that we postpone,” said Jane García, CEO of Clinica de la Raza. “We would need to discuss it. This event is a big deal—it’s taken a lot of coordination and volunteers—but it wouldn’t make sense to put people in jeopardy.”

Exposure to smoke can harm people’s lungs and make them more susceptible to a respiratory virus like COVID-19.

If postponed, it would be the second mass COVID testing event in East Oakland to be canceled in the last three weeks due to poor air quality caused by wildfires. A similar outdoor testing event at Eastmont Mall, which was being orchestrated by UCSF with community partners in deep East Oakland was canceled on August 21. 

But as of Wednesday afternoon, organizers were still planning to move forward with the event, dubbed “Sanando Juntos (Health Together): Fruitvale.” The effort is the result of a partnership between the University of California San Francisco and the Resilient Fruitvale Taskforce, a coalition of local non-profit and government organizations led by The Unity Council that includes La Clinica de la Raza, Native American Health Center, Street Level Health Clinic, Oakland Unified School District, La Familia, Oakland Public Library, and the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Sanando Juntos (Healing Together): Fruitvale

What: A free, COVID-testing event for families (including children) and individuals living in the Fruitvale District and 94601 area code.

When: Saturday, Sept. 12 and Sunday, Sept. 13 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Where: La Clínica de La Raza parking lot, 35th Avenue and E. 12th Street

Updates: Event updates will be posted at https://unitedinhealthoakland.org/

Fruitvale and other parts of East Oakland continue to be coronavirus hotspots, even while infections in some parts of the Bay Area, and across California as a whole, have begun to decline. As of Wednesday, there were 19,496 recorded cases of COVID-19 in Alameda County, of which roughly 40%, were in Oakland, according to the county health department. A majority of those cases are clustered in three zip codes, all in East Oakland: 94603 (deep East Oakland), 94621 (East Oakland), and 95601 (Fruitvale). 

Health officials have known for months that Latino and Black residents in the Bay Area are testing positive and being hospitalized with COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups. But pinpointing the exact cause and developing a public health strategy to slow the outbreak has proven difficult in the absence of more widespread testing, contact tracing, and data gathering in these communities, according to Alicia Fernández, a doctor at UCSF. This weekend’s mass testing, which Fernandez said will include antibody testing for asymptomatic residents and children, is an important step in that direction. 

“More testing—easy, no-barrier testing—is always good because when we test we can catch people. But to move the needle, we need to know more about how to protect people who are at risk,” said Fernández. “Gathering data and research surveys can help us understand better how to protect people, especially workers because we think that workers are getting infected and bringing that home to their families. So data gathering and testing are equally important.” 

Mam-speaking Guatemalan immigrants—a growing population in the Fruitvale—are particularly at risk for infection due to a lack of reliable in-language information about COVID-19. Many Mam immigrants, said García, speak very little or no Spanish. Mam translators will be onsite at this weekend’s mass testing event, she said, and organizers are hoping to see the community come out in large numbers this weekend.

Day laborers, she added, are another high-risk group, due to the fact that many live in crowded households and have immediate economic needs that often trump any concerns about coronavirus.

“We’ve heard a lot of folks who didn’t want to get tested at first. They didn’t want to know whether or not they were infected—they didn’t want to know the answer, because knowing the answer would have impeded their ability to go to work, and we know what that means,” said García.

“What we’re experiencing is clusters within families,” she added. “Latinos live in intergenerational households. Mama, grandma, and the kids all live together, so when someone gets infected it goes to the whole family.”

Health workers from UCSF will be administering nose swabs at the testing site this weekend. Results will be made available within four days. Antibody test results will be available within two weeks. 

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Providers at La Clinica de la Raza will follow up with anyone who tests positive to ensure they receive the health care they need and get connected to support services—a role that García said is typically carried out by public health agencies. Having La Clinica take the lead, she said, will help alleviate fears that many Latino and undocumented residents harbor toward government agencies.

“When you have the uneasiness that our immigrant community is experiencing—to have a nonprofit they trust to contact them and get their private info, as opposed to a county employee who they’re concerned may have to report them to the state, is huge,” she said.

A decision to continue with or postpone the event said Fernández, likely won’t be made until Thursday afternoon and will be based on air quality forecasts for this weekend. 

Updates will be posted on the United in Health Oakland website and on community partner social media channels. The Oaklandside will also update this story accordingly.

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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 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. Simas has lived in Oakland for the past decade with his wife and two children, who attend Oakland public schools. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat and a former volunteer host and producer with KPFA.