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Getting a coronavirus test is becoming harder, frustrating anxious protesters

Protesters with Black Future Project occupy a Boyle Heights intersection June 23.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

As tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest police brutality earlier this month, health officials hammered home a single message: Get tested for the coronavirus. The massive demonstrations could become hotbeds for transmission, officials warned.

Widespread testing might allow detection of those cases before they spread further. But in the weeks since the protests, Los Angeles County residents say they have struggled to secure testing appointments, even as officials report a troubling surge in people infected with COVID-19.

“The fact that we are having these huge public congregations and if we want to go get tested, we can’t — it’s disturbing,” said Tannaz Sassooni, 42. “I don’t know if it’s a glitch, or if [the website] is truly just not taking anyone right now, but it’s pretty bad.”

Sassooni, who lives in Atwater Village, has tried unsuccessfully to make an appointment for COVID-19 testing multiple times after attending an anti-police-brutality demonstration last week. She and others say they fear that the window to learn whether they contracted COVID at a protest is narrowing quickly.

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On Tuesday, L.A. County officials confirmed that there were no appointments available at the more than 40 sites run by the city, county and state. Some sites were temporarily closed and the number of open slots at available sites had been reduced, though in the late afternoon they added some to accommodate demand, they said.

The announcement about the testing shortfalls was widely criticized, in part due to the timing. Over the weekend, President Trump declared at a rally that he ordered testing to be slowed down nationally so that fewer cases would be detected.

The testing issues come as Los Angeles County and California is seeing a major jump in people sick with the virus on Monday. California shattered a daily record for new coronavirus cases with more than 6,000 infections reported Monday — the largest single-day count in the state since the pandemic hit the U.S.

“Testing is the only way to truly know where the infection is, and where it’s going,” said UCLA epidemiologist Dr. Tim Brewer. “So if you ultimately want to be able to contain and control it, you’re going to have to have testing as a major component of that strategy.”

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L.A. struggled with testing enough people early in the pandemic, but was then lauded for greatly expanding its capacity and becoming the first major city to provide testing to people who don’t have symptoms of the virus.

But officials faced criticism for closing many testing sites during the protests, which resulted in a 20% drop in the number of people tested in the first week of June. Then Angelenos began having problems scheduling appointments on the website.

When a reporter asked L.A. County health officials on June 17 why there were no available appointments, officials said the problems were due to adjusting the criteria for who could get tested and where, and would be fixed soon. But they weren’t.

On Monday morning, Sandra Medina decided she needed a COVID test. She’d had a sore throat for a few days and wanted to make sure she wasn’t infected with the virus.

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She clicked a link for the testing website and got a message saying no appointments were available. She tried again, and again. The same message appeared.

“Then I tried for the fourth time, and the fourth time when I did it again, the message popped up immediately, so I didn’t make the appointment,” said Medina, 25.

Officials said Tuesday that the testing shortfall is in part due to paring down of testing sites and slots, a move that they had been discussing for weeks because of a large number of unfilled appointments.

In the second week of June, the most recent week for which data is available, 90,863 people were tested for COVID-19 at government-run sites, while 38,417 slots were either unfilled or no-shows.

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On Tuesday morning, the testing website was only offering appointments through Friday, all of which had filled up. So in the afternoon, officials added appointments for Saturday through Monday so people could continue to sign up, they said. The county will also open an additional dozen testing sites on Monday, they said.

Any drop in testing would likely complicate efforts to combat a recent rise in COVID-19 cases in California and in L.A. County, which have both seen record-breaking numbers of cases reported in the past week.

L.A. County public health department director Barbara Ferrer said Monday that it is “highly likely” the local surge is linked in part to protests, but also probably to social gatherings and other events. Officials from other counties, including San Diego and Contra Costa, told The Times that while some people who attended protests have been diagnosed with COVID-19, they don’t seem to be a major group driving outbreaks.

The limited coronavirus transmission that has been documented as a result of the protests suggests that being outdoors and wearing masks can greatly reduce spread of the coronavirus. The same numbers of people indoors, without masks, could have easily been a disaster, said UCSF epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford.

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But knowing definitively what has caused the recent spike in cases would require careful analysis, and it may never be possible to disentangle whether it was the protests, the reopening of the economy, or something else entirely, said UCLA’s Brewer.

He said that regardless, the virus remains a threat and people need to stay vigilant. California has become a state where case numbers have continued a troubling rise, he said.

“Clearly, we’re not where we need to be right now,” he said.

Coronavirus infections among Los Angeles police officers have spiked in recent weeks, and officials are trying to determine whether the protest might be a source of the infections.

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Police officials have said that officers were exposed on skirmish lines as they worked to disperse screaming crowds. Protesters say officers recklessly arrested people en masse without wearing masks, exposing not just themselves but others.

In the last week, positive cases within the LAPD workforce jumped from 170 to 206, Chief Michel Moore told the civilian Police Commission on Tuesday.

“Officers in many instances attempted to wear face coverings but were challenged in effectively communicating with each other or over the radio, given the conditions,” Moore said.

Protesters and their supporters, meanwhile, have lambasted the LAPD and individual officers for weeks for not wearing masks during the protests, which they said put them at risk. Multiple lawsuits over the LAPD’s protest response cite the lack of masks on officers and the crowding of arrested protesters into packed buses during a pandemic.

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During a public comment portion of the Police Commission’s online meeting Tuesday, multiple callers ripped into Moore over the issue, saying he should not be surprised that officers had contracted the virus, given that many of them had dismissed public safety concerns and refused to wear masks amid the protest crackdowns.

Times staff writers Kevin Rector and Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.


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