SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — A new COVID-19 testing and tracking program is underway to prevent outbreaks in one of San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities. 

In Chinatown at a single room occupancy hotel, or SRO, on Waverly Place, two or three people live in a tiny, 10-by-14 foot space. They share narrow hallways, kitchens, and bathrooms.

Although building owner Ding Lee renovated to add extra showers and bathrooms, social distancing is still a challenge for some tenants like Jie Yao Zhu.

“I’m a little concerned given how many people are living in the same building,” she said through a translator.

The tenants are taking part in a new COVID-19 testing and tracking program to prevent an outbreak among 14,000 people living in more than 100 Chinatown SROs.

Chinese Hospital CEO Dr. Jian Zhang came up with the idea.

“So if there’s one who’s positive, that means the chance of giving it to others is very, very high, right?” she said. “If tested positive, then quarantine them. And then you do the contact tracing in the meantime,” Dr. Zhang said.

Chinese Hospital partners with the city’s public health department to conduct free COVID-19 testing.
 
On this day, health workers test about 100 people in four SROs. All of them tested negative. More than 200 tenants had already been tested in three SROS since late May.

Only two people in separate hotels have tested positive. They were quickly quarantined.

One lived in tenant Eloa Odeye’s building.
 
“So I think we were all a little bit on edge,” she said.

Odeye tested negative and the virus did not spread.

That experience taught health workers a valuable lesson, according to Stephanie Cohen, Medical Director of San Francisco City Clinic.

“It shows that a single case in an SRO doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an outbreak there,” Cohen said.

And even in cramped quarters, handwashing, physical distancing, and wearing masks are working:

“It’s not an easy fight, but these measures really can, they can really, flatten the curve,” said Cohen.

After testing, health workers phone tenants for health updates, and request residents report any COVID symptoms they develop but some residents fear if they call in with symptoms, and test positive, they’ll get kicked out.

“So they’re not being evicted if they test positive,” Dr. Zhang said. “We need to educate them. We’re there to help them.”

Hospital clinic manager Jiami Wu helps spread the word.

“If you have any symptoms, you can reach out to us.” Wu said. “We have COVID line, we have a COVID testing clinic, and so people won’t get scared.”

The two-month old Chinatown program now offers a model in COVID-19 hotspots in the Mission and Tenderloin, in hopes tenants in other neighborhood SROs can feel as safe as those who’ve been tested in Chinatown.
 
Tenant Gong Wah Wong said, “This testing gives me the sense of security that I can safely go outside and not spread the virus to anyone else.”

Odeye agreed, “I felt like I was really happy that I did it.”

The Stupski Foundation provided the initial $250,000 grant, but more funding is needed to continue the program.

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