Recent UC Berkeley grad offers free COVID-19 PCR testing at pop-site, amid concerns over unauthorized sites

UC Berkeley alum Ata Mahmoud seen here on Jan. 12, 2022, at her COVID testing pop-up site in Oakland. 

Almost every day for the past three weeks, Ata Mahmoud has been volunteering her time to offer free COVID-19 testing services at her own makeshift testing site in Oakland, she's said, as a service to help her community.

Since Dec. 27, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily, the recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley has set up outside the Safeway at 6310 College Avenue in Oakland near the Berkeley border, equipped with dozens of swab kits and ready to help people find out if they’ve contracted the coronavirus. 

Jan. 12, 2022. UC Berkeley alum, Ata Mahmoud (right) has been volunteering her time to offer free PCR COVID-19 testing at a pop-up site in Oakland. 

Her kits were for lab-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which have shown to be more sensitive and accurate than at-home antigen tests. 

SEE ALSO: With rising demand, Berkeley lab cranks out thousands of PCR tests a day

The process, she said, was designed to be contact-free, as those who came to get tested were required to perform their own cheek swab and place the sample into a sterile lab vial themselves. 

Mahmoud said the swab kits were then taken by courier to Hayward-based lab Predicine, which processed the samples. Within 48 hours, the lab was expected to directly text/email the person, who tested, with the results on whether the sample came back negative or positive for the coronavirus. 

Those seeking to get tested were asked to refrain from eating 30 minutes prior and also bring a phone, proof of insurance if they had health coverage – though not required, as well as identification -- also not required. Upon arrival, they’re instructed to scan a quick response (QR) code that’s posted at the site and fill out a form online. 

On Jan. 12, 22, person scans QR code at pop-up COVID testing site in Oakland, set up by UC Berkeley student.

"The process is essentially designed to be ‘waitless’ or ‘line proof,’" Mahmoud said in a post on the neighborhood social media site NextDoor, adding, "If you read and follow all the directions available to you, you could be in and out within 3-5 minutes."

When Mahmoud first launched this effort, coronavirus cases were making a skyrocketing ascent, fueled by the easily transmittable omicron variant. And the demand for testing services were extremely high, as people were concerned about their COVID status following holiday gatherings. 

So the former Cal student, who said she majored in Media Studies, with a focus on public health, decided to respond to the need.

SEE ALSO: California 1st state to top 5M cases amid omicron surge

She put out a call to community members on NextDoor, saying, "Tired of waiting in long lines this holiday season? Struggling to snag a COVID-19 test appointment? Can't find the time outside work or school? FEAR NOT! FREE, FAST, COVID TESTING IS AVAILABLE!"

People waiting for testing on Jan. 12, 2022, at pop-up site in Oakland, set up by UC Berkeley student Ata Mahmoud. 

The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of people reacted to the post, offered comments, and many thanked Mahmoud for helping them get tested during a time when sites were booked up or getting backed up with long, winding lines. 

At least once, she had to cut short her testing hours, as she ran out of swab kits. And another day, she canceled and used the day to recharge after she said that the manager of the Safeway kicked her off the premises. 

"Nonetheless, that will not stop me from servicing the needs of the community. I will CONTINUE TO CONVENE THE TESTING (Yes, it is STILL ONGOING, SAME PLACE, EVERYDAY 12-4 OUTSIDE PHILZ/SAFEWAY ON COLLEGE) closer to the middle of the plaza," she shared on Jan. 7.

Pop-up testing site has been running since Dec. 27, 2021 outside a Safeway on College Ave. in Oakland.

Some have posted comments questioning the legitimacy of her operation as well as whether the testing process would produce reliable results. Others have complained that they never got their results. Mahmoud said any questions about test results should be directed at Predicine, saying her role was to act as a go-between. 

"I am merely a volunteer who is electing to do this in my free time, to give back to the community and am given limited resources to do so," Mahmoud said, adding, "This is purely to support the needs of the community during a time where there is unmet need." 

UC Berkeley alum Ata Mahmoud seen here on Jan. 12, 2022, volunteering her time to offer free PCR COVID testing at a pop-up site in Oakland. 

She again reiterated to those skeptical about the service that she herself was not doing the testing and that the process was specifically designed to mitigate any possibility of tainting samples or spreading the virus. "I do not touch or handle any tests, phones, pens or other materials. The test kits and their contents are also sterile. I also have hand sanitizer at the site," Mahmoud said. "I also wear 2 FDA approved masks the entire time, one of them is a KN95, to protect myself and others," she added.  

The concerns and questions about the site came as stories have been emerging about unauthorized COVID testing facilities in the Bay Area.

KTVU recently reported on a site in San Francisco that was operating without the required, up-to-date licensing, prompting the city attorney’s office to step in and demand that operators submit the proper paperwork to continue testing services.  

KTVU reached out to both state and local health agencies asking whether Mahmoud was authorized to run her site in Oakland. 

In a statement, the Alameda County Public Health Department noted that testing operations were regulated by the state and federal government. "Local lab operations should ensure they comply with these regulations and any requirements for operating a business. Both the site and the lab you describe in your email are expected to comply with state and federal regulations," county health officials said. 

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) told KTVU it was aware of consumer complaints regarding such pop-up testing sites, noting many of those complaints involved concerns over issues related to pricing, the validity of tests, how samples were handled, and a failure to report results.

"CDPH will continue to work with local partners to identify problematic sites and take appropriate action, while also help direct consumers to legitimate testing sites," state health officials said, adding, "California has worked around the clock to expand access to verified testing sites amidst the recent surge, including increasing capacity and hours of operation at sites and deploying the National Guard." 

SEE ALSO: Gov. Newsom activates National Guard to assist with COVID testing sites

Officials also said the labs that conduct COVID tests were required to meet federal Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) regulations, as well as the requirements of California laboratory law. 

"Unfortunately, it is unclear if many of the sites raising suspicions are sending samples to a licensed lab," the health department noted.

Recent UC Berkeley graduate, Ata Mahmoud, who is volunteering her time to offer free COVID testing services in Oakland, said samples were being sent to Hayward-based lab Predicine. 

According to the accounts of those who have used Mahmoud’s service, the samples were, as promised, sent to Predicine and processed by the lab. Predicine has been a leading testing resource during the pandemic, partnering with many Bay Area schools and local government agencies. It’s also College of American Pathologist-accredited and CLIA-certified. The lab did not immediately respond to KTVU's request for a comment for this story. 

For now, there were no signs that Mahmoud was going to stop her volunteer work as long as she saw there was a need. She’s extended her testing services for a second time since she began this effort. 

The latest stop date was scheduled for Sunday, but now she said she planned to keep the pop-up site going through at least Jan. 31 to provide a service she's felt compelled to offer, she said, "Due to overwhelming demand, and the ever rising need for Free and Accessible COVID PCR testing."   

For those seeking to get tested, health officials urged that they use verified sites, stressing that the state has worked diligently to try and make testing easily accessible to all of its residents.

testing for covid-19

Officials test for COVID-19.

"Ninety percent of Californians live within 30 minutes of a testing site," CDPH said, adding, "There are no out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing at a valid testing site operated by the state or your local public health department. An insured person can get a COVID-19 test at these sites at no cost. If you’re uninsured, the government pays for your test." 

To find a state verified testing facility in your area, go to the CDPH's site here.  

Complaints about a testing site can be filed with the Federal Trade Commission. Concerns involving test results or a lab operation can be reported here