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LA’s New Coronavirus Testing Regime

Last week, after Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Los Angeles was offering COVID-19 tests to all city and county residents, I decided to get one myself—and test Garcetti’s bold new promise in the bargain.

I was surprised how easily I was able to log on to L.A.’s testing website. I answered a few questions about myself, including whether I had any symptoms of the disease—the answer was no—and within three minutes, I had a same-day appointment at one of eight city-run testing sites.

In fact, it was a same-hour appointment. I rushed out of the house unshowered to drive across a large swath of the county to the site—a Los Angeles Fire Department training center next to Dodger Stadium.

The trip would easily take 90 minutes in non-pandemic times, but I got to the designated freeway off-ramp in under half an hour. That’s when the traffic jam began: It took 75 minutes to snake my way the additional half-mile to a red tent, where a masked fire department employee handed me a zip-close bag containing the testing materials.

She directed me to one of three lanes up ahead, where I sat in my car and performed the test on myself.

I rolled a cotton swab in my mouth for 30 seconds, dropped it into a clear liquid inside a test tube, twisted the cap onto the tube and placed it back in the plastic bag. A protectively swathed attendant plucked the bag from my hand with metal tongs as I held it out of my car window, and deposited it in a large blue bin.

It was all very simple. I was now among 10,000 L.A. County residents who visited a city testing site that day—triple the number of previous days, when tests were limited to those with coronavirus symptoms or those considered high-risk even if asymptomatic.

The mayor is clearly proud of his new strategy. At a news conference last week, he spoke of the praise he had received from doctors, public health officials and other mayors who, he said, told him, “Thank you for leading the way.”

At a time when a shortage of tests still impedes efforts to grapple with the virus in many parts of California and the rest of the U.S., it is noteworthy that Garcetti is now offering testing to all 10 million-plus residents of the nation’s largest county.

“That’s a story in and of itself: that they have the availability and they can make this effort,” Ronald Brookmeyer, dean of the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA, told me.

But Garcetti’s plan is not a silver bullet. Though public health experts say it is vital to know how many people without symptoms are virus carriers, millions of people may choose not to get tested. And even if you don’t have the virus when you take the test, that’s no protection against future infection.

What officials do with the results is crucial, said Brookmeyer. They need to follow up on the positive cases to reach friends, family members, colleagues and other contacts who may have been exposed—a process known as “contact tracing.” They must also find ways to safely isolate those who test positive and protect vulnerable people in their lives. “We have to get the most bang for the buck of every single test that we do,” Brookmeyer said.

Garcetti said he would hand over COVID-positive cases for contact tracing and other follow-up to public health officials from L.A. County, which includes the city of L.A. and nearly 230 smaller communities.


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