How a California city tested its people for coronavirus


When the coronavirus epidemic appeared to be raging in the bay area a few weeks ago, residents of this hermit-like seaside community tried to protect themselves by doing what they do best – keeping them away strangers.

Despite a regional home stay order, foreigners flooded Bolinas, which is just south of Point Reyes National Seashore in western Marin County. Screaming matches ensued. The residents displayed themselves at the entrance to the city and shouted to the drivers, “Go home!”

Under a homemade “Bernie 2020” sign painted red, residents hung two more: “Bolinas closed to visitors for the duration of the pandemic. Residents, deliveries only. “

Jyri Engestrom, 42, a venture capitalist who owns a house here, was concerned that the pandemic could rage in the city, which has about 1,600 residents, many of whom are seniors. Some residents had symptoms but were unable to get tested.

“I was scared because frankly, it’s a city of aging hippies whose idea of ​​social distancing isn’t about kissing as much,” he said.

Working with voluntary and non-profit groups, Engestrom organized a test project for all resident volunteers, employees of Bolinas and front-line workers. On Friday, UC San Francisco, which processed the samples, announced the results of 1,845 nasal and oral swab tests. No one has been infected.

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A lonely beachgoer walks near the waves in Bolinas, California.

(Maura Dolan / Los Angeles Times)

Surrounded by the sea on three sides and accessible from San Francisco by a long two-lane road, bordered by cliffs and windy, this hamlet is best known for its disdain for development and foreigners. Bolinas rulers cut water connections decades ago to keep the community small and demolished the road signs that pointed to the city.

Yet high-tech entrepreneurs have managed to buy homes, and property values ​​and rents have skyrocketed. The entrepreneurs were ungrateful, donating money for local causes, including a park. Residents said they also helped pay for free meals and masks during the pandemic. The city has come to appreciate beneficence.

“They don’t understand the city,” said Rudy, 69, a resident of Bolinas, chatting with another man on a street overlooking a lagoon. “But they are extremely generous. “

Rudy refused to give his last name. “Bolinas is a secret place, you know,” he said.

A city sign in front of a path to the water says, “All non-residents may be subject to fines. A shelter at home. “


Sign warning foreigners to stay away from Bolinas, California.

(Maura Dolan / Los Angeles Times)

Engestrom said the mass tests from a week ago were surprisingly easy. Even if the hospitals lacked the components necessary for the tests, the organizers improvised and used what was abundant. They plan to publish a blueprint for other communities who wish to follow their example.

He and Cyrus Harmon, 49, who founded a pharmaceutical startup and moved to Bolinas 10 years ago, came up with the idea of ​​doing community-wide testing after reading about the city of Vo, in northern Italy. It tested almost all of its 3,000 residents at the height of the coronavirus epidemic. The two men said they wanted to give something back to the city.

Mark Pincus, who founded online game maker Zynga and also owns a home in Bolinas, donated the first $ 100,000.

Volunteers gathered to help. “It’s not about making tech executives,” said Harmon. “It’s about the community coming together and doing it. “

Engestrom knows the optics of the wealthy tested while the poor go away is disturbing, but said most of the people in Bolinas live modestly.

The median household income is approximately $ 58,000 and the median age is 62.5 years. More than 16% of residents, mostly aged 65 and over, live below the poverty line, according to census data.

“I’m definitely a stranger because I’m part of the problem,” said Engestrom, who bought a house here in 2014. “We’re raising housing prices by coming here from San Francisco. I feel that. “

He and other test project organizers, in collaboration with UC San Francisco infectious disease experts, had to collect supplies. The long swabs generally used for testing were not available, but there were many shorter swabs which experts believed would be sufficient.

For the protective equipment of the testers, the organizers scoured the hardware for painter’s costumes, also approved by scientists. A call to social media for face shields has produced so much that Engestrom has a full storage room that it can’t give up. Volunteers went online to hire phlebotomists – certified testers – to take the samples, obtained gloves from restaurant suppliers and masks from friends who bought them in China.

A volunteer team of Airbnb engineers built the platform used by residents to schedule test appointments, and a GoFundMe page provided donations, mostly under $ 1,000. In the end, approximately $ 360,000 was raised. The largest payment went to UCSF, which subsidized the project.

In addition to sampling residents for the virus, the city also tested them for antibodies. The UCSF has started a complementary study to test residents of the very dense Mission district of San Francisco, where the infections have spread.

The organizers of Bolinas bought wedding tents for the tests and installed them in the parking lot of a city park. The tests were carried out over four days.

Bruce Dark, 67, is one of the few who refused. He has lived in Bolinas for 32 years.


Bruce Dark, a resident of Bolinas, calls the pandemic “mass hysteria” but still wears a mask.

(Maura Dolan / Los Angeles Times)

“It is mass hysteria,” he said. “I have spoken to 15 people, and no one knows who died.”

Dark was huddled with two other men in the tiny downtown area of ​​the city, which includes gas pumps where last week sold for $ 5.99 a gallon, a bar, a grocery store, a surf shop, a coffee shop, and a hardware store. The main street dead ends at the beach.

One of Dark’s friends refused to be interviewed. “Go back to Los Angeles,” he shouted.

Dark, however, was pleasant. He wore a blue headgear and a printed fabric mask, which he lowered and raised regularly. As he approached a masked reporter to hear better, he said, “Don’t worry. You will not get sick. “

During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, some communities became isolated from others and managed to escape the disease, said Dr. Robert Benjamin, a long-standing public health officer from the Bay Area. He wondered if this was possible today.

The value of the Bolinas tests was “purely surveillance information,” he said, and could be used to determine when the premises should reopen.

“It’s a snapshot,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about tomorrow. As long as the city didn’t use test supplies that others needed more urgently, he saw no problem.

Engestrom said he knew the city “dodged a bullet this time”. The mood is now a relief.

Engestrom, a native of Finland, said he fell in love with Bolinas years ago. He said it reminded him of a small Italian or Spanish town where the elders take the time to meet and chat on the streets.

Residents’ animosity towards foreigners may seem “unpleasant,” he said, but elders “defend their right to exist without having the means to do so.”

“I feel like they are in a losing battle,” he said. “The power of capital is so overwhelming. “


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