A bin of cheek swab samples sits outside the Safeway on College Avenue in North Oakland the afternoon of Jan. 21. Credit: Brian Krans

Getting a COVID test in Oakland during the omicron spike has been difficult, to say the least. Rapid tests have been hard to find on store shelves. Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR lab tests, are more accurate than rapid tests but hard to come by, with appointments unavailable for a week or more at many sites that require online reservations. Testing sites that take walk-up appointments often have long lines.

In the midst of these challenges, a smattering of new testing sites, advertised under the name “Stop. Swab. Go.,” have begun to pop up around Oakland and in other parts of the East Bay, promising free PCR tests with no appointment necessary. But multiple readers of The Oaklandside and Berkeleyside have reached out with concerns about how these testing sites are being run and handling test results. We decided to follow up on their tips by visiting the sites ourselves. 

What we found were several locations that appeared makeshift and understaffed. One of the Stop. Swab. Go. testing sites we visited in Oakland was unstaffed.

The Stop. Swab. Go. website, which was registered in November, advertises three testing sites in the East Bay that are listed as being open seven days a week. One is in Berkeley, at the southwest corner of Regent Street and Ashby Avenue, near Alta Bates hospital. The other two are in Oakland: near the entrance of the Safeway on College Avenue at 63rd Street, and on 42nd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way next to Lighthouse Mosque. The website also lists locations with more specific hours in Pleasant Hill and Antioch, and one in Davis that is “coming soon.”

The testing sites in Oakland and Berkeley are not among those listed by the Alameda County health department on its site directory, by the state of California, or the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, which maintains a list of community-based testing sites. 

These locations all appear to be using testing materials from Predicine, a Hayward-based “molecular insight company developing genomic profiling tests and robust algorithms for cancer diagnostics and monitoring,” according to the Predicine website. On California’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force website, the company reports it can process 70,000 samples a week and get results in 24 to 48 hours upon receiving those samples. The company also advertises many different ways for schools, businesses, and emergency workers to use Predicine for their on-site testing, which can include both rapid antigen and PCR tests collected by either nasal or cheek swabs or through saliva samples. 

None of the East Bay Stop. Swab. Go. sites are listed on the Predicine website, which says the company partners with agencies including the city of Emeryville, the Dublin Unified School District, and the San Francisco Police Department.

The Stop. Swab. Go. sites we visited did not ask for payment, although they do request test-takers provide insurance information, if they have it. Information provided by Predicine to California’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force shows the company can bill private insurance companies from Aetna to United Health, and public plans from Alameda Alliance to MediCal. 

On its website, Stop. Swab. Go. encourages people to inquire about its “large volume drop boxes” and offers “convenient weekly pick-up available at your business or school.” The website, however, does not provide information about who runs the site. The “about” page mentions only that it partners with Predicine and is “expanding into Contra Costa and Yolo Counties” to fill in “the testing gap and making fast and efficient testing available for everyone at no cost.”

A spokesperson for the Alameda County Public Health Department told The Oaklandside that the state of California, not the county, is in charge of regulating COVID testing sites. If people are concerned about whether a test or testing site they’re using is reliable, the department recommends they seek a test through their healthcare provider or by visiting one of the community health sites that offer testing all throughout the county.

What we encountered at the testing sites

One of the Stop. Swab. Go. testing sites in Oakland advertised itself using an 8.5 by 11-inch flier duct-taped to a pole at Madison Square Park, outside another testing site run by Asian Health Services. (Test samples at the AHS site are processed by Color, a company that partners with the California Department of Public Health to set up testing sites across the state.) 

The sign directed people to 42nd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where it said walk-up appointments were available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

When The Oaklandside visited this site at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, we found a handwritten note that said “back in 5 minutes,” placed on a folding table under a blue awning with the words “Stop. Swab. Go.” on the sidewalk. 

Unused testing supplies and a black plastic bin for collecting used cheek swabs were left unguarded. It’s unclear whether there were used swabs in the bin. Some people arriving at the site for a test, and finding no one there, simply took the test supplies, packaged in biohazard bags, to administer themselves without supervision. 

On Jan. 21, the location in Berkeley near Alta Bates showed no signs of any pop-up site during a time when the Stop. Swab. Go. website said it would be open for testing. 

When we visited the testing location on College Avenue in North Oakland, it did have one person on site who was helping a group of about a dozen people with the registration and testing process. 

Some Oaklandside and Berkeleyside readers who had tests done at these sites reported getting results much later than the 48 hours advertised on some of the flyers. Others told us that their tests were lost. 

People also expressed concerns about privacy and questioned why the collection kits used at the Stop. Swab. Go. sites in Oakland and Berkeley used cheek swabs rather than using the more intrusive but more effective nasal swabs.

A UCSF study published this month found that, during the omicron surge, cheek or throat swabs shouldn’t replace nasal swabs because they have “significantly reduced sensitivity” and are more than 90% less likely to identify a COVID infection when compared to nasal swabs. 

Of four samples The Oaklandside submitted to the Lighthouse and North Oakland sites, one was returned within 48 hours and two were still pending after 72 hours. A Predicine representative told us one of the samples had been lost at the testing site.

In September, the West Contra Costa County Unified School District stopped using Predicine for their routine testing, citing multiple times when testing time was lagging. 

It’s unclear who runs Stop. Swab. Go.

Predicine did not return a phone call and email for comment sent by The Oaklandside on Monday, and the privacy page of its website was flagged by Google Chrome as being not secure and vulnerable to data breaches. 

KTVU has reported that the College Avenue testing location is a volunteer-driven endeavor run by a recent UC Berkeley graduate, who told the Fox affiliate last week that they’ve been helping people sign up and self-swab since Dec. 17, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., and that they started doing the work out of a sense of community service when omicron began to surge and the demand for tests increased. They said the pop-up testing site is designed to get people in and out quickly. “If you read and follow all the directions available to you, you could be in and out within 3-5 minutes,” the person told KTVU. 

When reached by phone Monday, the same individual (The Oaklandside is choosing not to publish their name, since we have no evidence they’ve been involved in any wrongdoing) told us they couldn’t provide any information about Stop. Swab. Go. They asked that our questions be emailed, but those subsequent requests for clarification about the testing site and the company that runs it have not been replied to. 

Another email we sent on Monday to an address listed on Stop. Swab. Go.’s website for more information was not returned. 

The Oaklandside will update this story as new information is received.

Reporter Ashley McBride contributed to this report.