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Coast Covid Testing Obstacles

Rationing of COVID-19 test kits has plagued state and local governments' response to the pandemic across the country and Mendocino County is no different.

Especially on the tourism-dependent Mendocino Coast, where the economy is still reeling from the ongoing shutdown and the area's one 24-bed hospital is a thin safety net against any kind of COVID surge.

So far, the coast has been fortunate, and diligent, with only four confirmed cases, all originating out of the area, with no sign of community spread. Unlike many rural communities, mask-wearing and social distancing are as close to universal from Elk to Westport as anywhere in California, across cultural lines, and far more than in places like Placerville, where maskless chic is reportedly all the rage.

Testing is another story, and one that has to improve for the coast to regain its economic footing, say local officials. City government and the Chamber of Commerce point out a distinct deficit between testing available on the coast, and what is required to meet state guidelines for reopening. For instance, that all essential workers get tested every two weeks.

That alone, by conservative estimates, would require at least a few hundred tests a week on the coast. The capacity now for regular, public testing is between 50 and 450, depending on how you measure. About that number of tests are shared among the Mendocino Coast Clinics in Fort Bragg, Redwood Coast Clinic in Gualala, and the Anderson Valley Health Clinic in Boonville.

Between them, the three clinics have devised a schedule of testing and sample delivery to the University of California at San Francisco's biolab, which has contracted with a number of California counties to handle the testing load from public health facilities.

In-county, Adventist Health has a small biolab in Willits that can process a small number of test samples in a couple of hours. The OptumServe test site at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds in Ukiah, contracted to county government, has been doing hundreds of tests a day with a turnaround time of about a week.

Mendocino Coast Clinics' Executive Director Lucretia Renteria said Friday that the turnaround time for UCSF has just been lengthened from 3-4 to 5 days, and that results on samples sent there on June 25 still aren't available.

Renteria said the core problem is lack of testing supplies and lab facilities, so that existing labs have to parcel out test kits over time.

Renteria said MCC, which is a federally funded clinic separate from the state and county health systems, has received COVID-19 aid packages since March, enough to keep going. But even if the clinics had all the money they needed to pay for expanded testing, Renteria said, the supplies just aren't there and wait times, if anything, would lengthen.

“We're not dry bones like we were at the beginning,” Renteria said of the supply of tests, “but we're not flush either.”

Everything from reagents to test tubes are scarce, she said, “and those are the things that are clogging us up.”

Funding has been available, but on a just-in-time basis, with contracts renewed days before they are set to end and negotiations causing grueling uncertainty, including a two-week stretch in June when surveillance testing completely stopped on the coast while the contract with UCSF was being worked out.

“We know we have testing in July,” Renteria said Friday.

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