COVID-19 Testing SF

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NOTE: This page is a daughter page of: COVID-19

So this is just a tiny little page, written Sep 2020, to help my friends who want to get COVID-19 tested in San Francisco (SF) or the wider bay area. There's many different options, but certain providers have the huge drawback that it can take over a week to send you your results. My first test was with Kaiser Permanente, and it took forever on the phone answering questions (they save money by you not getting tested) and a week before my test, deep nose penetration and another week for results. The whole experienced with them sucked. If it takes a week or two to get results, then those results are effectively useless (the damage has been done), therefore your highest priority is to find a place with quick turnaround time.

My experience and the consensus among my friends: the best place to get tested for quick turn in the bay area around time is the free SF sponsored "color" COVID-19 testing at SOMA or Embarcadero in SF. I prefer Embarcadero because they have a walk in option + drive in option... SOMA has drive in only I believe. Even if you have to book a week ahead, there's an easy trick where you hit "Change Appointment" afterwards, and you can keep hitting refresh and someone is likely to cancel... meaning you have a great chance of a same day appointment.

I've used this approach about 5 times already (between April and September) and it's been great each time.... I've usually been able to book same day and get my results in <24 hours.

How to Book A Free Appointment for Best Turn-Around Time (Color at Embarcadero or SOMA)

  1. Go to:
  2. Click the "City-run, open by appointment only" option > and pick Embarcadero or SOMA.
  3. Go through the 5 step process.. it might take ~3 minutes, to fill in the details, but it will be worthwhile and if you do it again Chrome should help you autocomplete the next time.
  4. Select Embarcadero drive in or walk in at the last step. You'll probably have to book a week ahead, BUT what you do is then click "change appointment" on your email and then hit refresh and often one will appear the same day.
  5. Show up on your designated day with your drivers license and let them awkwardly put that swab up your nose. They don't got crazy deep into your nose like some (like the early tests), but they still need to make you uncomfortable and do both nostrils for a while to get enough snot for a sample - once they didn't get enough with me and it gave me an "Inconclusive").
  6. At then end they'll give you a piece of paper with a code that you enter to get your results when they text you. Take a photo of it right away and then hopefully they'll get back in 24 hours.

NOTE: It really doesn't matter what time you book, it only matters you pick the right day. You can book for the morning and show up in the afternoon or vice versa, and they don't mind.

Last step of booking is to select appointment time... this screenshot is from Sep 13, so most appoinments were a week ahead... *BUT* notice a slot open on Sunday - a result of cancellation.. that's why the "reschedule appointment" and refresh approach works.

The location of the Embarcadero site. Notice the "reschedule appointment" link - you'll get an email with the same link.

Free Wallmart Testing (if you can book it)

Walgreens is offering no-cost, contactless COVID-19 testing at select locations in partnership with the PWNHealth provider network. Testing is available at no cost to eligible individuals who meet criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and federal guidelines. At the testing locations, the Walgreens pharmacy team oversees patients’ self-administration of the COVID-19 test.

Wallgreens has lots of locations, but often all booked up for next 3 days.

Testing From Home (Pixel by LabCorp)

If leaving the house scares you, or isn't possible there is an option to get tested from home using Pixel by LabCorp! Visit:

I haven't tried yet, but a friend has and she says some health insurances will pay for the test for you. Once ordered, they overnight mail you an at-home kit to collect your nasal swab sample and ship it back to our lab. Sounds like it's a pretty good deal, so long as you get insurance to cover it.

If you really need a test and rapid results (as in 30 minutes) and are willing to pay $100-200, there are several options. Here's a few:

How Accurate Are Results

As you should already know, the nasal swab has many false positives and false negatives - in other words it's not always right, but it's the best we've got. If you think you've been exposed to a confirmed covid person, recommendations are to isolate immediately and wait at least 72 hours (3 days) after you might have been exposed - any earlier and it won't have shown up in your system yet, nor will you have symptom. This article Interpreting Diagnostic Tests for SARS-CoV-2 (and the blue line in the diagram below) can help.

The light blue lines roughly shows the accuracy of a nasal swab - however it's shortly after exposure when you are most contagious.

Should You Get Tested Frequently?

Should you get tested frequently? That's personal preference.

Why tested so many times? My best friend's mom is immunocompromised, so he insisted that to hang out with him I should get tested - and I missed hanging with my best friend, it was a very easy decision for me. Along the way I decide it's good practice to get tested for most of us.... let's be honest - we're at the stage now when we're not all isolated at home, we want *some* social time with friends to avoid getting depressed. You could catch COVID from a friend or at the groceries at any moment... regardless of how good you are with masks. Then suddenly you might pass it to a friend. The analog is people who have never been STD tested.

I've heard the argument that you shouldn't get tested unless you very highly suspect you have COVID (fever etc), to allow spots for people who really need it, but the Embarcadero is good at prioritizing people with symptoms and essential works (they ask lots of questions about this) and I was quite surprised that they usually don't have a line. Actually a couple of times I see two testing booths and the people there (in white suits) are just lazing around. I'm really grateful the city provides with free service and I feel like it's good to take advantage. Many people who catch COVID-19 don't get symptoms, hence I try to get tested at least once a month. You can make your own decision, but I would recommend to everyone to try at least once... because then if you do actually experience symptoms you'll know where to go quickly the next time.... and if you do show up positive - well then thank me for the tip! :)

Stay safe out there. Keep wearing that mask!

Disclaimer: You should already know this, but the test itself... while required for traveling to lots of countries... well it't far from 100% accurate. There are false positive (it says you have it, but you don't) and false negatives (it says you are negative, but you actually have it) all the time - so keep that in mind. The test for antibodies are even less reliable. I had some flu symptoms in February 2020 (before COVID-19 was on the radar in SF) which was probably a normal flu, but could easily have been COVID-19.... I will probably never know.

What Happens if I Test Positive?

I've had a couple of friends test positive at Embarcadero. What happens is that the state actually calls you! SF is good about this - they want to ask you when you think you caught it, to warn any you've been in contact with and they will also have advice about how long to quarantine. After testing positive, you might already be out of the contagious period, you will probably still test positive for another month or so afterwards, and should self-isolate for at least 2 weeks after that first positive result.

If I Have it Once Am I Safe?

Well I'm not any expert on this, but I have a dear friend who's already caught covid twice. Once in March and once in September 2020, the second time she was less sick, but still pretty bad. After you get it once, your immune system is down so you can easily catch something else. I have another friend, under 30, who was really sick when she caught COVID. She could have easily died. These are just stories of immediate friends, so if you expand that, then know that you are never really safe from COVID - even after a vaccine is found I have a feeling that like the flu and the flu vaccine, it isn't going to be 100% effective.

Acknowledgements: Adam Morrison for being the first to tell me about Embarcadero! Also thanks to Lauren for telling me about the test from home kit and Stefan for showing me the chart.

See Also

  • COVID-19 - My wider article about COVID-19.