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Small California Town Hopes Testing Will Show How Coronavirus Is Spread

A sign about being 6 feet apart is posted along the main road through Bolinas, Calif. Residents are undergoing testing as part of a coronavirus study.
Haven Daley
A sign about being 6 feet apart is posted along the main road through Bolinas, Calif. Residents are undergoing testing as part of a coronavirus study.

A small town in northern California will become the first in the nation to try to test everyone for the Coronavirus, regardless of symptoms, in an effort to better understand how the virus spreads and how antibodies against the disease are built.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco who are running the project in unincorporated Bolinas, home to some 1,600 people, started Monday.

"We don't have enough data to tell people how to lift those (stay at home) measures safely," Dr. Aenor Sawyer with UCSF tells NPR. "What we need to understand is how does the virus spread through communities so that we know how to open up people's lives again. How do we contain this virus and how do we safely move forward and try to move past it?"

The pop-up, drive-through testing center is up and running at a local park. It will do what's called PCR tests to determine if a resident currently has the virus as well as antibody tests to see if a person has been infected and has developed antibodies against the virus.

More antibody testing is vital, Dr. Sawyer says, to better understand how and in what ways infection builds immunity.

"We will see people who have antibodies, people who don't. But what isn't clear right now is does that mean they have immunity? We don't know that," Dr. Sawyer says. "And if it does eventually seem like they have immunity, we don't know how long the window for that immunity is."

Researchers hope Bolinas serves as an ideal ecosystem socially and demographically to study. It's rural but before the shelter-in-place order, it always had a steady stream of recreational visitors and tourists from outside. The community also has a large number of older adults.

"The median age here is 62. So we have a lot of high-risk people," says Dr. Sawyer, a longtime resident of Bolinas. "And we have a significant (number) that are under the poverty level. We have social economic disadvantage and we have some minorities."

Starting this weekend, UCSF researchers will launch a companion testing program in San Francisco's Mission District, an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood. That will allow them to carefully compare urban and rural test data.

Residents of the unincorporated community raised the money, some $300,000, via a GoFundMe campaign to buy the testing materials and tents needed to set up the site.

The researchers hope the data is useful to public health officials making tough decisions about when and how to reopen society. But they also hope the testing might serve as a template for other communities.

As Dr. Sawyer puts it, "The epidemiological data will be helpful in policy decision-making for their communities. But what's really important is, could they get their own community tested? Because we need to be able to do more community-wide testing to safely advance through this pandemic."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.