A year ago, just over six months into the coronavirus pandemic, San Antonio had reached 50,000 positive cases, and more than 1,000 dead.

Today, more than 4,000 people have died from the virus locally, and infection surges continue to challenge the community’s response. 

In those 12 months, a nonprofit established by local philanthropic organizations to provide assurance testing for “silent spreaders” of the virus — to help stop infections in congregate settings like schools and workplaces — has processed more than 1 million COVID-19 screenings. 

Community Labs leaders announced the milestone Friday on its one-year anniversary and, in partnership with biotech nonprofit BioBridge Global, will soon triple its lab capacity to process more than 50,000 samples a day, up from the current 15,000.

Since its start, the goal of Community Labs has been to help schools safely bring students back to the classroom, allow workers to return to the office and communities to recover, said Graham Weston, a Community Labs co-founder, former CEO and chairman of Rackspace, and co-founder of development firm Weston Urban

“It’s been a year since we unveiled the lab and a lot has happened,” Weston said. “One of the things we were told by a lot of the medical experts a year ago was we didn’t need to start a lab because COVID would be over by Christmas. I wish that came true. Here we are a year later and we have a whole new surge and I think our community needs a lab more than ever.”

While schools have reopened and many returned to the office, the delta variant of the virus has driven new surges and hospitalizations around the world. Lower-than-anticipated vaccination rates led to President Joe Biden announcing Sept. 9 a new rule requiring employers with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing.

Community Labs is currently testing in six private workplaces and 11 Bexar County school districts, but that is expected to grow. More districts outside the county are planning to contract for testing within the next two weeks, said Sal Webber, president of Community Labs. 

Already, the number of tests has increased because the majority of students have returned to in-person learning this school year. 

In September 2020, Weston established Community Labs with Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman and trustee of The Tobin Endowment, and Tullos Wells, managing director of The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. 

The idea went from concept to pilot to widespread testing, he said, within a “remarkable” 60 days and, in October 2020, elicited a $1 million donation from Carlos and Malú Alvarez.

Assurance testing identifies those with asymptomatic COVID-19 before a spread can start. Community Labs employs a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) screening using monitored, self-administered swabs of the front of the nostril. The Food and Drug Administration calls it the “gold standard” for testing, Weston said.

“Rapid tests aren’t good at testing asymptomatic [individuals],” Webber said. “They’re about 60% accurate, most of them, and so the only way you can find asymptomatics is if you’re using a PCR.”

Now Community Labs and BioBridge are able to bump to a higher lab capacity through “pool testing,” a method that involves combining the same type of specimen from several people and conducting one lab test on the combined pool of specimens to detect the virus that causes COVID-19.

If a positive result is found, each specimen in the pool is retested individually to determine which one is positive. It’s a similar method used to test blood and plasma donor samples for hepatitis, HIV, West Nile, and other viruses, said Dr. Rachel Beddard, chief medical officer for BioBridge Global. 

Community Labs promises to provide results within 24 hours, allowing those who test positive to isolate themselves from the general population.

After a pilot testing program at Geekdom in August 2020, Community Labs launched its first full-scale testing program at schools in the Somerset Independent School District. 

Community Labs technicians prepare tests for Somerset High School employees to self-administer a nasal swab for COVID-19 in September, 2020.
Community Labs technicians prepare tests for Somerset High School employees to self-administer a nasal swab for COVID-19 in September, 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The effort grew during the 2020-21 school year to include 350 campuses in 11 Bexar County school districts, plus several charter and private schools. The districts include Southwest, Somerset, Alamo Heights, San Antonio, East Central, Judson, Northside, Harlandale, South Side, South San, and Edgewood. Students and staff in the PreK4SA program are also being tested.

Six local universities and colleges testing through Community Labs include Trinity University, Schreiner University, Southwestern University, Our Lady of the Lake University, the Alamo Colleges District, and St. Mary’s University. 

During that time, the average positivity rate in those settings was 0.5%, according to data provided by Community Labs. Testing at those sites has continued into the 2021-22 school year and has resulted in a positivity rate of 1.65%.

At $35 per test, funding for school testing has come through Bexar County and the State of Texas’ allocation of federal CARES Act dollars. 

When Somerset ISD began testing students at the start of the 2020-21 school year, about 38% of students were attending in person, said Superintendent Saul Hinojosa. Testing results delivered reassurance that it was safe to return and by the end of the school year, 83% of students were in class. 

“What does it mean to have a student in front of the teacher?” Hinojosa said. “Well, when you look at Somerset ISD, what we saw is that we were one of 10 school districts across the state of Texas that actually saw an improvement in their STAR test scores in reading and math, which was just spectacular. We also outperform the state of Texas, in most categories, and the region as a whole.”

At San Antonio ISD, the COVID-19 testing has helped to keep people in school and at work and that’s the goal, said Toni Thompson, associate superintendent of human resources at SAISD. It’s also to get them back quickly after exposure to the virus so as not to lose invaluable time for students in the classroom, she said. 

“It’s been a real shot in the arm — and I’m not talking about vaccines — but a real shot in the arm for us to be able to provide that assurance and to provide that peace of mind again not only for parents and their children but for our staff members,” Thompson said. 

Already this year, in schools that use assurance testing, virus transmission is not occurring as rapidly as it is in other schools, said Webber.

“During the 2020-2021 school year we saw an average positivity rate in schools of 0.5%, well below the more than 10% positivity rate we saw at public testing sites,” Webber said. “This school year, there are more students attending class and because of the delta variant, that positivity rate has increased to an average of 1.65%, with some individual campuses as high as 4%, still well below the general public rate.” 

Last fall, Community Labs also set up throughout the city five screening sites open to the public, with three funded by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Between October 2020 through May 2021, those sites conducted 139,687 screenings and reported an average positivity rate of 11.1%.

At the 31 private business and workplace screening sites that Community Labs operated since its inception, the average positivity rate was 1.5%. 

Despite the expanded processing capacity, there are no plans to reopen public testing sites.

But Community Labs co-founder Tullos Wells, who tested positive for the virus in December about five days before experiencing symptoms that required medical care, said the nonprofit will continue providing its services as long as needed.

“We have no galloping desire to be in a testing business as a career,” Wells said. “When the community says we don’t need you anymore, we’re happy to go away or we’ll provide the assets we have to someone else who can use it. But, yeah, it looks like we’re going to be doing this a little longer than we expected.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.