San Diego crossed two important COVID-19 thresholds Wednesday: offering tests to people shortly after they cross the border and sliding under the state’s per-capita case total for the first time since the region went on the governor’s watchlist on July 3.
The most visible of the two began just outside the PedEast border crossing, and seemed to attract its target audience during Wednesday’s launch — essential workers who travel into the United States for work.
The location is part of the county’s ongoing efforts to slow the spread of the virus in the South Bay, where case rates are highest.
Although many factors contribute to those numbers, the fluidity of the border is thought to play a role. Nearly 20,000 people, including both American citizens who live in Tijuana and Mexican citizens with work visas, cross at PedEast every day.
These employees often struggle to find time to get a test.
“I actually wanted to do the test, but I hadn’t been able to because of time and just not being able to get to the (testing site) in a fast and easy way,” said 29-year-old Israel Haro.
Haro, who lives in Tijuana but crosses into the United States to work at a pawn shop in San Ysidro, was one of 78 people to get tested at the new site on Wednesday. He said he didn’t realize that a testing site had been planned for the location, but was glad to stop in after spotting white tents and informational signage after crossing.
“I thought it was just wonderful to have the chance,” Haro said. He added that although he didn’t suspect he’d come in contact with a sick person, he thought getting tested “was a responsible thing to do.”
The second milestone appeared in the county’s daily COVID-19 report Wednesday, announcing that the region’s case rate is now 94.1, the first time it has been below 100 per 100,000 residents in more than a month.
If the rolling 14-day average number of new cases detected daily remains below 100 for 17 days, schools that serve grades 7 through 12 will be allowed to reopen.
County officials reiterated Wednesday that no other businesses will be allowed to reopen until the state provides further guidance.
Many have been doing their own math, diligently adding up the previous 14 days of daily reported positive test results, factoring in local population and arriving at different case rates than those that the county and state have been reporting.
Officials with the California Department of Public Health and the San Diego public health department said in emails this week that the difference comes down to the specific numbers being used. Calculating case rates requires using the “episode date” of each case. Episode dates, according to the CDPH, represent the first date that the local or state health department is notified of a confirmed or probable case and may be significantly earlier than the day that positive test results are formally reported to the public.
A county official said that efforts are underway to include episode dates in future reporting.
The county also reported 236 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday.
It was the third straight day that the number of new cases reported was less than 240, the magic number for getting off the state’s watchlist. County officials confirmed in an email on July 22 that, if average new case activity stays below that threshold, the case rate will remain under 100.
While the number of new positive test results being returned daily to the county health department is clearly falling, the novel coronavirus continues to exact a terrible price.
The county reported six additional COVID-related deaths Wednesday, including five women and one man, whose ages ranged from 66 to 96. The deaths happened between July 28 and Aug. 11.
Testing has been a big part of the strategy for getting control of the virus, particularly in the South Bay.
The new PedEast location, which joins several others south of Interstate 8 already up and running, can collect samples from between 150 and 200 people per day, running from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.
County officials said they expected a bit of a slow start on Wednesday, but feel that as word gets out about the location, testing will grow. For now, they’re focusing on building trust with the surrounding community and dispelling any fears people may have over the process.
For some people, just the thought of being positive is scary enough to prevent testing. Others worry about what a COVID-19 diagnosis might mean for their livelihoods or their families.
Brenda Rodas, who lives in Tijuana but works a retail job in the United States, said she was nervous the testing would be uncomfortable. It was a fear voiced by several visitors on Wednesday, said Jennifer Bransford-Koons, the county’s testing branch director.
“It looks scary, but it’s not at all,” Rodas said.
She said she heard about the testing site on Facebook, but didn’t decide to get tested until she spotted it on her way to work.
“Might as well,” she said. “There were five (COVID) cases at my job.”
The testing site’s location, which is on Customs and Border Protection property, has also prompted some concern.
Bransford-Koons reiterated that no information about tests is shared with the federal government and no questions about immigration status are asked.
“We’re not sharing information with CBP at all,” she said. “We’re not asking about immigration status. The closest question we ask is where do you mostly live.”
From start to finish, the testing process takes five to 10 minutes. Visitors will provide some basic information to county staff members, or use their smartphones to snap a picture of a QR code, which will take them to a website where they can fill out the information themselves.
Anyone who wishes to get tested will need to supply some kind of ID, so employees can verify the identity of the person being tested.
The test itself takes about a minute. Although a nurse is there to walk people through the process, each test is self-administered and involves swirling a cotton swab inside the nostrils for about 15 seconds.
Test results should be available in three to five days and are sent to people any way they wish — usually via email or a phone call.
“We want to take care of people and then send them off to their busy days,” Bransford-Koons said. “We know people are working and that’s why they’re coming across the border, so we want to make it as simple and quick as we can.”