“A huge part of this project was changing health behaviors, and that meant testing behaviors,” Pollock said in an interview. “’Why should I get tested?’ Well, if they don’t understand that, they’re not going to get tested. A lot of what we did in Davis was focus the messaging in the community on getting people to understand the importance of testing.”
The university came up with a logo — a blue-and-green encircled mask — and launched a campaign using social media, mailers and print and digital advertising to convince residents to get tested. Eventually, the message was extended to billboards, train stations and Spanish-language radio. Hundreds of college students trained as public health “ambassadors” showed up to the weekly farmer’s market downtown and popular campus gathering spots to talk up the program and share information about where to get tested. Local artists were hired to design banners displayed throughout the city, encouraging everyone to participate. QR codes with information about testing centers appeared on coffee sleeves, napkins for take-out orders and door hangers throughout local neighborhoods where wastewater levels were spiking.
The city — and eventually, the county — threw itself headlong into the natural experiment, seeing it as a potential lifeline to return to some semblance of normalcy. The citywide effort, known as Healthy Davis Together, launched in November 2020 before expanding to the rest of Yolo County, where Davis is located, the following July.
By early 2021, the “spit test” had made its way into family routines, becoming a shared experience for thousands of people, an unusual source of civic pride. The program opened testing sites throughout the campus and city and sent mobile testing teams to hard-to-reach populations, such as farmworkers in the fields. Usually about 24 hours later, and sometimes even the same day, residents would get a text or email with a link to the results.
With each peak of the pandemic — first the Delta variant, then Omicron — residents leaned more heavily on the testing regimen in the hope of sparing relatives, friends and classmates from a disease they might unknowingly harbor. Lines of people wrapped around the testing facilities scattered around town, waiting to spit into a plastic vial that would soon be whisked off to the repurposed genetics machine.
Once in-person learning resumed in the local school district, crews made the rounds at schools each week, testing lines of symptom-free children from each classroom on a voluntary basis.
To Amy George, a sixth-grade teacher in the Davis Joint Unified School District, the rigorous testing routine eased worries for both parents and teachers, making it possible for all but three of 29 students to return to her classroom in the spring, and virtually all her students to come back last fall.
“It made me feel a lot safer,” George said. “It really allowed me to go into the school year and deal with the school year in a workable way.”