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San Francisco plans booster shots, ramps up testing amid Covid-19 case uptick

San Francisco is expanding its testing capacity, and looking ahead to a booster shot program this fall, in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Starting tomorrow, the city’s Department of Public Health (DPH) will open a high-volume, appointment-only testing site at 7th and Brannan Streets that can administer 500 tests per day, bringing its total testing capacity to 5,000 tests per day. In addition, officials in charge of San Francisco’s vaccination efforts are aiming to launch a booster shot initiative sometime this fall. 

“Now that we’ve received the [CDC’s] formal written recommendations, the goal is to launch that program as soon as possible,” said Jonathan Sears, director of DPH’s vaccine unit. This week, the CDC formally recommended that immunocompromised people—such as those undergoing cancer treatment, or with HIV/AIDS—obtain an additional vaccine shot in light of a nationwide case surge.

The CDC said it will offer booster shots starting on Sept. 20, and eight months after an individual's second dose. That timing means that people who received vaccines early on, or in January 2021, would be eligible first.

“We may be looking at early to late fall—less weeks, and more months at this time,” Sears added of a widespread booster shot offering in San Francisco. “Our goal is to maintain preparedness with the networks we have.” 

Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of health, added that booster shot eligibility is expected to expand in the coming weeks, and that DPH will ramp up shots accordingly as new guidance emerges. Individuals in the immunocompromised group can make appointments for third shots with DPH or private providers now.

Thanks to the Delta variant, which is believed to be about 50% more transmissible than the “Alpha” COVID-19 strain that dominated worldwide in 2020 through mid-2021, San Francisco saw an uptick in cases this summer despite a high vaccination rate. 

The CDC confirmed this week that immunity to COVID-19 wanes over time, saying in a statement that "in association with the dominance of the Delta variant, we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease." 

In San Francisco, new cases and hospitalizations surged in July, though the city’s data show a drop-off in August. Colfax noted that the recent decrease is “consistent with the indoor masking mandate” imposed by the city two weeks ago. However, he cited fluctuating case counts in the United Kingdom—which, like San Francisco, boasts a high vaccination rate—as reason for caution.

“What starts to come down doesn’t always continue to come down—that’s what we saw in the U.K…We’re watching this very carefully to see whether we will have a similar situation,” said Colfax.

As of Aug. 17, 85% of San Francisco residents aged 12 and older have received at least one vaccine shot, along with 93% of residents over age 65. A large majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks are unvaccinated, according to public health officials.

The city is also stepping up efforts to get more people vaccinated, a “slow and steady” effort, according to Colfax. 

About 570 people per day are receiving a vaccine dose currently, and DPH has transitioned away from large vaccination sites towards a more localized approach, making vaccines available at neighborhood events, workplaces, food banks and other community sites. The department also launched mobile vaccination clinics focused on reaching homebound or disabled residents, unhoused people and other hard-to-reach populations. 

Last week, Mayor London Breed announced that bars, restaurants and other “high-contact” indoor venues must verify that patrons have been fully vaccinated prior to entry. The order also applies to employees of those establishments, who must provide proof of vaccination to their employers by Oct. 13. 

Breed and Colfax hope that the new mandate incentivizes more people to get vaccinated. 

“We very much hope that the incentive of eating at your favorite restaurant in San Francisco, or grabbing a drink, will remove any barriers you may have to getting vaccinated,” said Colfax on Aug. 12.