A long line of people wait to get tested at Berkeley Adult School on Dec. 20, 2021. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update, Jan. 18: As of this week, the Curative site at the Berkeley Adult School is also processing about 250 rapid PCR tests along with 100 regular PCR tests a day.

The rapid tests launched on Jan. 11, and testing capacity is expected to increase to 500 a day, according to Curative spokesperson Shoshana Gould.

Unlike the standard PCR tests, which require being shipped overnight to a lab in San Dimas and processed within 1-2 days of arrival, Gould said the rapid tests are processed on site in Berkeley within two hours.

The rapid tests are available to everyone except children under the age of five, who are still only authorized for regular PCR tests.

Original story: Berkeley residents are venting frustrations over a lack of speedy, reliable COVID-19 testing options as the Bay Area faces down its third year in a pandemic amid a surging variant. But the city says it has plans to increase access to PCR and rapid testing in the coming weeks.

For many residents seeking PCR tests, the long lines and logistical confusion are reminiscent of March 2020, when testing was still a brand new feature of a nascent pandemic. Testing capacity soon increased but fell once case rates and demand dropped, and now Berkeley is in another iteration of the same pattern, with residents urgently sharing information on testing sites through social media and word-of-mouth.

Lisa Warhuus, city director of health, housing, and community services, said the utilization rate of testing sites determines staffing and the number of appointments and walk-ins available. Demand was low until the second week of December, when residents began to grapple with the omicron variant and a resulting surge of cases.

The city put in a request to increase testing at three state-funded sites in Berkeley operated by LHI and Optum, and Warhuus said it was approved on Jan. 3. The West Berkeley Service Center and mobile clinics in downtown and West Berkeley now have an additional drive-thru lane of testing capacity.

“When a request is made by a local health jurisdiction, such as the city of Berkeley, there is a minimum seven-day wait time between approval from the state and local implementation,” Warhuus said. “Similar to most industries, a current challenge to increasing testing capacity is securing the workforce to staff the testing sites and the labs that process the results.  

From Jan. 23 to Feb. 14, a new mobile testing site from Curative will be available at San Pablo Park. It will be open Sundays and Mondays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. This site may be extended if demand continues.

The city is also working to open another South Berkeley testing site for six days a week, eight hours a day, to increase daily testing capacity by 500. This location would have walk-in and appointment-based testing, and is also subject to being extended.

“The city will continue to monitor the utilization rates of testing sites and historical trends and patterns to increase testing when there is an anticipated or demonstrated demand for testing,” Warhuus said. 

Berkeley COVID-19 Testing Sites

There are four city-coordinated sites for COVID-19 testing. Same-day appointments remain very difficult to find at most sites, walk-ins are no longer accepted and testing is free with or without insurance. This list does not include CVS or Walgreens pharmacy sites, pop-ups or community locations, like those found at local places of worship. See a full list of free testing sites in Oakland on our sister site, The Oaklandside.

Berkeley Adult School, 1701 San Pablo Ave., West Berkeley

  • Open seven days a week, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Appointments often open a day before, so it can appear as though there’s no availability
  • Make an appointment through Curative

West Berkeley Service Center, 1900 Sixth St., West Berkeley

  • Open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m.-12 p.m.; 1 p.m.-5 p.m.; 6 p.m.- 8 p.m.
  • Appointments are usually open a week in advance

Mobile Sites

  • Downtown Berkeley: Harold Way between Kittredge Street and Allston Way, Tuesdays 7 a.m.-7 p.m
  • West Berkeley, Meyer Sound: San Pablo and Heinz avenues, Wednesdays, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
  • Appointments are usually open a week in advance

Appointments for the West Berkeley Service Center and both mobile sites are through LHI, which requires you to make an online account.

Additional community sites have popped up throughout Berkeley and are usually designed to serve specific neighborhoods and populations. The city has partnered with groups like the Capoeira Arts Foundation, LifeLong Medical Center and the Multicultural Institute to do outreach for these sites.

Warhuus said the outreach has included pop-up testing and vaccine clinics, door-knocking campaigns, virtual information events, street outreach to day laborers, domestic workers and homeless residents living in encampments. 

“As we continue to respond to COVID-19, it is critical that the city of Berkeley center racial and social equity in our efforts to ensure there is equitable access to vaccines, testing and other infection control and health care measures,” Warhuus said.

Rapid tests are being distributed to priority groups

PCR tests from official testing sites are the most accurate way to determine a COVID-19 infection, but rapid, at-home tests sold in pharmacies have gained popularity as residents determine the best way to socialize and navigate the ongoing pandemic.

There has been a rallying cry to make rapid tests free and widely available to the public, as has been accomplished in other countries, especially for locations with high rates of community transmission, like schools.

Berkeley Unified School District gave students and staff rapid tests before the start of the school year this month and is aiming to ramp up availability as a case surge threatens to disrupt in-person schooling.

Warhuus said the state allocated 3,000 iHealth Covid-19 Antigen Rapid tests to the city, and it’s prioritizing residents living in congregate settings such as shelters, transitional housing and rehabilitation centers, as well as essential workers, day laborers, domestic workers and those who would not otherwise have access to over the counter at-home testing.  

On Monday, the Biden administration announced that private insurance companies will be required to reimburse up to eight at-home rapid test kits per person monthly. This policy will go into effect on Saturday, and there also are plans in the works to send free tests to people and make at-home tests free at pharmacies with no out-of-pocket costs.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...