Health and Wellness

Two men from this small California beach town raised money to give free Covid-19 and antibody testing to all its residents

Jyri Engestrom at a free Covid-19 and antibody testing site in Bolinas, California.
Courtesy: Jyri Engestrom

When Jyri Engestrom, a 42-year-old entrepreneur who runs a small early stage venture fund in San Francisco, California, read an article in the Guardian newspaper about an Italian village that tested its entire community for the novel coronavirus and was reportedly able to eradicate the virus by doing so, he was inspired.

Engestrom wanted to do the same thing for his community of Bolinas, California, a small beach town about 13 miles from San Francisco with about 1,620 residents but no confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to local news outlets.

Engestrom says he told a mutual friend about the article and that friend connected him to another Bolinas resident, Cyrus Harman, the founder of a pharmaceutical company who was also intrigued by the story.

Engestrom and Harman started to communicate over text message and later via phone calls. Soon they recruited local volunteers, formed a partnership with researchers at University of California, San Francisco's School of Medicine and on April 10 created to a GoFundMe page to raise money to get free Covid-19 diagnostic and antibody tests for all of Bolinas' residents.

Since then the pair have raised more than $300,000 through resident donations with 93% of the 150-plus donations all under $5,000 with some as little as $10 to buy materials and to set up a drive-through site in town.

Despite their success working together, due to shelter at home restrictions Engestrom and Harman did not get to meet each other in person until they did a walk-through of the testing site.

"The other volunteer organizers were surprised since everyone just assumed we were old friends," Engestrom tells Make It.

Free testing for Bolinas residents began on Monday and is expected to last until Thursday. To date, more than 70% of its residents have been tested, according to Engestrom.

BOLINAS, CA - APRIUL 19: A Covid-19 testing site is set up in Bolinas, California on Sunday, April 19, 2020. A venture capitalist paid for about 1,000 Bolinas, Calif. residents and 150 first responders to be tested for coronavirus to help researchers learn more about the virus. A community organizer is arranging a similar mass testing program in San Francisco"u2019s majority-Latino Mission district.
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

"We tested 302 people on Monday and 416 [on Tuesday] and over 500 were scheduled for [Wednesday]," Engestrom says.

UCSF researcher Bryan Greenhouse, who is leading the study at Bolinas that aims to get a complete understanding of how the virus spreads, says UCSF researchers are using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) swab tests and taking small blood samples to test for the presence of both the novel coronavirus and its antibodies. Both tests are being supplied and processed through a new UCSF diagnostic laboratory adjacent to Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. (The Biohub is a non-profit institute established in collaboration with UCSF, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley for medical research, and is funded by Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.)

Greenhouse says he hopes to get as many Bolinas residents as possible tested, but the tests are voluntary.

"Our goal is to return results for PCR within 72 hours of receipt in the lab," Greenhouse says.

If a resident tests positive, they will get a call from a UCSF physician to explain next steps, which will include detailing who they interacted with in recent days and how they plan to self-isolated for the following 14 days (if they don't need urgent medical care). The delivery of negative results will be automated.

However overall data on active Covid-19 infections are expected to be shared publicly as soon as next week, according to the Los Angeles Times. Data from the antibody testing will take about four weeks to be ready for the public.

Aenor Sawyer, a Bolinas resident and UCSF surgeon who specializes in health technologies, is also volunteering her time for the study. She says starting Friday, her team will be making house calls for residents who can't get to the testing site.

"There's significant disparity in socioeconomic status here and 18% of our citizens are under the poverty line. We have worked hard to make sure that if you don't have a car, if you don't have a home or if you are home bound, we will accommodate you," Sawyer says.

(According to city data, the median annual income in Bolinas is $56,250, which below the country's median annual income of $61,937.)

Even though there hasn't been any confirmed case of Covid-19 in Bolinas so far, Sawyer says those in the town have "a lot of anxiety," because the median age of residents is over 60. (Serious cases of Covid-19 disproportionately affect older adults and those underlying health issues.)

"We've had a lot of symptomatic people but we haven't able been able to test them," Sawyer says.

What's more, Bolinas is a popular tourist spot for its beach.

Engestrom says the community's reaction to the free testing has brought him to tears. "I lost count of how many hands clasped in 'namaste' in the car windows I have seen" as people line up at the testing site, he says.

Bolinas isn't the only place being tested for the study. Greenfield says starting on Saturday, researchers will head to San Francisco's Mission District to begin to test all of its residents for active infections and antibodies. 

The Mission District, which is more densely populated with over 5,700 residents, has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in San Francisco, at around 166 as of Monday. 

(The median income in the Mission district is $96,000 a year, according to city data, with 15.1% of households living below the poverty level.)

Greenhouse says Mission District residents have not yet raised any money for the tests, but they will likely be covered by UCSF for research purposes.

Greenhouse says the hope is to learn how widespread Covid-19 is in those communities and learn how to best stop the spread and hopefully create a template for other communities to follow in the future.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that a new UCSF diagnostic laboratory adjacent to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub is supplying and processing the tests.

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