Skip to main content

Covid conundrum: Workers go ‘test hunting’ as shortage imperils SF’s pandemic recovery

San Francisco put a new Covid-19 policy in place to keep workers and residents safe, while helping them get back to their normal lives as soon as possible. But employers say the new rules, which require a negative test after five days of isolation, are nearly impossible to comply with because of a lack of available testing.

“The stress right now is the tests. Nobody can get rapid tests unless they were stockpiling beforehand,” said Laurie Thomas, the president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “The question I’m getting from numerous restaurants is: ‘Why can’t the city provide them to us?’”

Thomas, who owns Rose’s Café and Terzo in the Cow Hollow neighborhood, has been hit by the shortage herself. One of her employees who was experiencing symptoms waited three hours for a test. She sent him home with one of her two remaining at-home tests and is unsure when she’ll be able to get more. 

On Dec. 31, the San Francisco Department of Public Health updated its recommendations for people who were infected with Covid-19 or had close contact with an infected person. Taking a page from the CDC, the city shortened the length of time individuals should isolate following a Covid-19 infection from 10 days to five days since the onset of symptoms, or since the first positive Covid-19 test. However, individuals in San Francisco are required to test negative on Day 5 and have no symptoms in order to leave isolation, according to the city’s health order. They also must wear masks while around others for a total of 10 days. 

The policy change, which officials said is part of an effort to ensure adequate staffing, is meant to allow people to resume their normal life and activities sooner. 

The problem? Tests are not readily available. 

Bay Area residents have reported waiting up to seven hours for a PCR test and rapid antigen tests are also in short supply, with many local drug stores left with little to no inventory.

Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s health director, said at a Tuesday press conference that the city is in the process of procuring additional rapid tests, but they likely won’t arrive for two weeks — and will be earmarked for first responders and others in high-risk settings like nursing homes.

“It makes me angry because we had time to ramp up testing and we didn’t,” said UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, who compared the situation to the movie “Groundhog Day” in which a character relives the same day over and over again.  

Chin-Hong said the testing shortage was caused in part by the Biden Administration’s decision to “put all of its eggs into the vaccine basket.” 

“I love what the Biden Administration did with setting up a national strategy and aligning science and policies, but what they didn’t do was diversify their strategies against Covid,” Chin-Hong said. “Not everyone ended up getting vaccinated, plus nobody anticipated a variant like Omicron that sort of subverts vaccines and gives people breakthrough infections.”

San Francisco agencies and organizations are already struggling with a staffing shortage due to the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency tweeted on Monday that seven of its bus routes may experience extended wait times because of a lack of drivers. 

At the virtual press conference Tuesday, Mayor London Breed reported at least 400 city employees — 167 police officers, 135 members of the fire department and nearly 100 Muni employees — are currently under quarantine.  

Breed said the city is taking steps to prioritize essential city services, including police, fire, transit and garbage pickup.

“We’re not shutting anything down, we’re not closing businesses. This is not 2020. But we need to take action so that people are not all sick at the same time,” Breed said. “To put it simply, right now we’re learning how to live with Covid.”

She noted that the Department of Public Health is in the process of expanding hours and availability for testing, and she called on other health providers to contribute to the effort. 

A number of local businesses have closed temporarily because of the Omicron wave and point to the testing shortage as a key factor in their decision. Pearl 6101 in the Outer Richmond posted on Instagram that the restaurant closed on Jan. 3 “because of the severe lag time in testing.” 

Mission District residents wait in line to get tested for Covid-19 at the testing site on 24th and Capp streets on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. | Camille Cohen

“You’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place because you need a test to exit, but you can’t get one,” Chin-Hong said. “Although the glass half-full point is if you can shave any time off of 10 days, that’s going to mean a lot to people and employers.”

Jason Halverson, chef and partner of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group, said his company has had a number of Covid scares and getting adequate testing has been a struggle.

“If somebody is out sick, the question becomes: Do they have Covid or do they not?” Halverson said. “It puts everyone on edge and then there’s the frustration that you’re not able to know because there are no tests available.”

He and his partners have gone on “test hunting” expeditions to local drug stores to check their supply of rapid tests. 

“Currently, I’m batting around .500,” Halverson quipped. 

PCR tests haven’t been much easier to come by as Halverson’s recent experience with an employee demonstrated. 

“I wanted to get them a more accurate test for a little more confidence and those aren’t readily available in the kind of timeline we need to potentially get someone back to work,” Halverson said. 

Thomas, of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, noted that the previous requirement of 10 days of isolation regardless of symptoms has been “a huge burden,” particularly as government programs meant to pay out sick leave for workers have expired. 

Based on her communications with public health officials, Thomas doesn’t foresee any additional restrictions for restaurants — like forced closures or reduced capacity — being enacted. But the delays around testing access have now become a primary concern.

The Omicron variant is hitting San Francisco hard with an average of 829 cases per day, according to the city’s public health department. But there’s reason for optimism as the city’s ICU occupancy sits around 66%, below both the California and national averages.

Chin-Hong said going forward he expects the federal government to be more balanced with its Covid-19 approach. He pointed to the Biden administration’s announcement that it will distribute 500 million free at-home rapid Covid-19 tests starting this month as a positive sign. 

The current domestic testing situation is a far cry from places like South Korea and the U.K., according to Chin-Hong. In those countries, there’s essentially unlimited free testing to anyone who wants it.

“That is what we should aim for, because at the end of the day Covid is not just my problem, it’s everybody’s problem — I can spread it to people,” Chin-Hong said. “Testing is not just my issue, like I’m checking my cholesterol, but by checking a Covid test, I’m actually affecting the health of the community.”

Kevin Truong can be reached at