Smoky air stunts turnout at San Jose COVID-19 testing sites
A tent at the county's drive-thru COVID-19 testing site is set aside for bicyclists and pedestrians. File photo by Lorraine Gabbert

Steady crowds have streamed through most COVID-19 testing sites since the start of the pandemic. But that wasn’t the case this weekend at Santa Clara County’s newest —  and largest — testing site at the county fairgrounds.

That’s largely due to the bad air quality fueled by massive wildfires burning across the Bay Area. The ashy, smoky conditions have stopped people from getting tested for COVID-19, with only half the appointment slots filled at the new testing site in the last three days.

“The smoke and evacuations have held people back,” said Lindsay Kehl, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center clinical site lead. “We’re not seeing the number of people we expected to.”

The location, which is Santa Clara County’s largest testing site with the potential for serving 5,000 people, opened on Aug. 18. During the first three days, all of its 500 daily appointments were filled, in addition to some walk-in slots.

But as the wildfires raged on and plumes of smoke filled the air, the number of people booking appointments fell to half its capacity over the weekend. The only other testing site open Saturday at Overfelt High School in East San Jose also saw a drop this week — down from an average of 900 tests per day to about 700 tests per day.

Although the county fairgrounds site serves clients from as far as Modesto, Santa Rosa and San Francisco, Kehl said that because of the wildfires, people are unable to travel, being evacuated from their homes or helping family in harm’s way.

There could also be confusion about whether the county is continuing testing amid the wildfires.

“I think people are assuming that because of the poor air quality, our testing sites might not be operating,” said Santa Clara County spokeswoman Betty Duong, “but our testing sites are still in full operations.”

Duong said the county has taken preventative measures to protect those on-site from poor air quality including having personal protective equipment like masks and goggles and air-conditioned trailers for regular breaks. Vests with inserts for ice are also available and are regularly worn by workers.

Residents only have to open their windows for the actual test and a face mask still covers their mouths.

“This is in line with COVID precautionary measures,” Duong said. “We want to have the least amount of exposure between clients and staff.”

Kehl said the county fairgrounds site is ideal as it is centrally located, accessible to public transportation and close to Valley Medical Center if additional testing supplies are needed. “It’s a visible location in the heart of San Jose,” she said.

Although the county and medical staff prefer people make appointments, Kehl said residents without appointment will be tested if possible.

“The smoke and evacuations have held people back,” said Lindsay Kehl, Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center clinical site lead. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert

After entering the parking lot, drivers are asked if they have an appointment and have a number placed on their windshield. Then they’re directed to one of the lines and given a demographics form to fill out, as well as information on home isolation and quarantine guidelines.

Drivers pull alongside the nurses’ stations and pull their masks down from their noses. A cotton swab is inserted an inch into each nostril and rotated for 10 seconds. Those who test positive receive a phone call within three to five business days, while those who test negative will receive an email.

Tests are free and no questions will be asked about immigration status.

“It is immigrant friendly,” Duong said. “We don’t take information other than to confirm an appointment’s time and date. Staff speaks upwards of seven languages on site.”

Despite the bad air keeping people away, Duong says those who have a job interacting with the public should be tested at least monthly.

To remain healthy during times of poor air quality, the American Lung Association recommends checking daily color-coded air pollution forecasts. It also suggests avoiding exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high.

The National Center for Environmental Health said smoke from wildfires can hurt eyes, irritate respiratory systems and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.

It recommends staying indoors when the outside air quality is unhealthy, keeping windows and doors closed, running air conditioners with the fresh-air intake closed. The center also suggests consulting local air quality reports and visibility guides which measure the amounts of particles in the air and keep indoor air as clean as possible.

To check county COVID-19 testing hours and to sign up for testing, visit www.sccfreetest.org.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].com.

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