New Coronavirus Rapid-Testing Facility Up and Running at Hayward Fire Station

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Medical personnel screen patients at a new Coronavirus-testing facility at a Hayward fire station, which opened on Monday, March 23, 2020. The testing station has drive-through and walk-up screening and can test 370 people per day. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated March 23, 7:30 p.m.

The Coronavirus-testing facility a Hayward fire station is now up and running.

The site is focused on first responders, healthcare workers, and members of the public who have potential coronavirus symptoms.

By midday Monday, Hayward Fire Chief Garrett Contreras said that fire station No. 7 had already screened about 500 people from across the Bay Area, and tested another 40.

Contreras hand-delivered the first batch of tests to Avellino Lab USA in Menlo Park. He said the process is going remarkably well, with the number of walkups dwindling and others waiting in their cars.

"The way I'm looking at the line right now, maybe multiple sites aren't necessary and just staffing is the most appropriate," Contraras said. He said tomorrow they would see if people are traveling from farther away to get tested.

Contreras said Fremont fire personnel were assisting efforts and he was expecting observers representing the City of Berkeley.

Medical personnel screen patients at a new testing facility at a Hayward fire station on March 23, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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When Hayward Fire Chief Garrett Contreras saw that San Jose had to quarantine many of its firefighters after they were exposed to the coronavirus, he thought it could happen to his city, too.

“We started to get concerned about taking care of our people,” Contreras said. “Once I realized that there was a lack of testing for sick people in general, I realized there was a broader problem.”

In response, Contreras has rallied community members and a private company to make sure Hayward is keeping track of its coronavirus outbreak. KQED has learned the city will open a testing facility tomorrow geared towards first responders and health care workers. They will also test members of the public who are symptomatic.

“Suppression through isolation after testing, or SIT, as we call it, is an approach that has proven to be most effective in countries on the leading edge of this pandemic,” Contreras said.

The effort, which is the brainchild of the chief, was inspired by the ongoing difficulty of getting Hayward’s firefighters tested after possible exposure.

On March 15, Contreras began sending out hundreds of emails and LinkedIn messages to city leaders and labs. He also became a “student” of the virus, observing how other countries, such as South Korea and Italy, varied in their responses to the crisis.

In days, he secured $500,000 from the city of Hayward and a partnership with Avellino Lab USA, Inc., based in Menlo Park — a company specializing in gene therapy, molecular diagnostics and medicine for eye care.

The center has enough test kits for up to 370 people a day, for about a month.

The testing is free to the public and open to anyone, regardless of city, county or immigration status. Those who wish to be tested will first need to go through a screening process before a test is administered. The test involves swabbing of the nasal cavities and the back of the throat.

No referral from a medical doctor is required to be screened, and results will be available in as soon as six hours or the next day.

Contreras says his station is treating the effort as they would a natural disaster, with special strike teams that would go out on suspected coronavirus calls. Firefighters at the testing station are on duty for seven days, just like they would during a wildfire, after which they’ll be tested before taking a break and resuming another assignment.

If successful, Contreras hopes other cities and regions will follow suit. He said he’s already in talks with other cities about expanding the program to nearby fire departments.

"I believe that expertise is being underutilized right now because people don't make the connection of the fire service to an event like this," he said. "It's seen as a health care problem and this is a disaster on par with a 7.0 earthquake."

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Contreras also sees the testing site as an effort to decrease the pressure on hospital emergency rooms.

“There is enough equipment out there,” he said. “My belief is it's just not in the places it needs to [be] because it's not organized the way that we would organize resources in [the case of a] fire.”

The testing center will operate seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will be staffed by the Hayward Fire Department with both firefighters and paramedics. It will also be supported by emergency medical technicians.

Hayward has a dedicated COVID-19 information page and also runs a COVID-19 hotline: (510) 583-4949, which is staffed 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

The COVID-19 testing center is located at Hayward Fire Station 7, 28270 Huntwood Ave.