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Mayor Breed threatens health care providers with $10K daily fines for slow tests

Update: SF's Color sites reopened for testing on Wednesday, Jan. 12.

Mayor London Breed is pressuring large healthcare providers to shoulder more of the Covid testing burden as sites using technology from Burlingame-based Color remained closed Tuesday because of continuing technical issues with the healthcare company’s patient registration and sample collection software.

To bolster the city’s testing infrastructure, Breed announced a new mayoral order starting Wednesday that will require all healthcare providers to submit weekly proof they are meeting the goal of providing Covid tests, if necessary, to their members or patients within 24 hours. 

“Testing is a major issue. This is not a problem just here but all over the country,” Breed said in a press conference Tuesday. “This is not about punishment, this is about making sure our private healthcare providers are doing their part.” 

Providers will need to attest to the city’s Department of Public Health that at least 90% of patients who request a test because of symptoms or an exposure are receiving one within 24 hours, said Dr. Susan Philip, the city’s health officer.

Failure to comply with the mayoral order may result in fines of up to $10,000 per day.

The six shuttered sites, which represent 16% of the public Covid testing sites in the city, likely are responsible for a much higher percentage of the city’s overall testing volume. In July 2020, Color was conducting around half of all the tests performed in the city.

The relationship between Color and San Francisco has been touted as a highly functional public-private partnership during the pandemic, so much so that the company championed Chief Commercial Officer Caroline Savello’s appearance Monday at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference by noting their Covid response “has spawned new models for private/public health partnerships.”

In response to the technical issues leading to Color’s site closures, San Francisco is offering rapid tests to those who had appointments with Color at the Southeast Health Center location at 2401 Keith St. and Alemany Farmers Market location at 100 Alemany Blvd. 

“The fact that Color went down nationally was extraordinarily concerning and has had a major impact in the last 24 hours on our ability to provide testing for people,” San Francisco Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax said at a Tuesday press conference. “We are working to ensure that Color is fixing that problem as quickly as possible.” 

Color said in a statement that the team has resolved the technical issue and sites will be open on Wednesday at normal capacity.

San Francisco has seen a record number of new infections due to the more-transmissible Omicron variant. The current 7-day average case count of 1,386 is more than 270% higher than the previous peak seen in January 2021. Hospitalizations, however, continue to remain lower than last year’s record. 

The influx of new cases has increasingly strained the city’s testing infrastructure as well as its ability to staff essential services.

Mayor Breed reported at least 680 city employees were quarantined because of Covid infections, including 140 members of the fire department, 132 members of the police department, 160 Muni employees and over 250 staff members at San Francisco General Hospital.

“As I’ve said in the past, we are learning to live with Covid. It means assessing our own risk and taking the actions we need to take to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe,” Breed said, emphasizing that the city is not planning to introduce new restrictions on schools or businesses.

Colfax said the city is currently averaging around 10,000 daily tests and reached a new record Monday by performing more than 17,000 tests for San Francisco residents.

However, San Franciscans who utilized Color’s services prior to the closures this week are reporting delays in getting their results back. 

Excelsior resident Francisco Pavon, 42, said he visited Color’s Alemany Farmers Market location on Friday morning after his partner tested positive for the virus. He was tested about an hour after arriving and was told by the testing center employees that his results would be back in 48 hours.

So far, he has waited more than 96 hours for his results, he said—and the clock continues to tick.

Pavon said he spent more than an hour on the phone with Color’s customer service line on two successive days. When he finally connected with a company representative Tuesday morning, they told him an overwhelming surge in tests meant the company was unable to tell him when his results would be shared. 

Previous visits to the same Color sites have gone smoother, Pavon said, with results coming back well within the 48-hour timeframe.

“I’m lucky that I can work part-time from home and I can collect a paycheck,” Pavon said. “How about people that need a test to make a decision of whether they can go out and work or not?”

Kevin Truong can be reached at