November 17, 2020
Gov. Charlie Baker agreed Tuesday that long lines at COVID-19 testing sites are an issue and said his administration is talking to the federal government and others about ways that Massachusetts could soon expand testing capacity, provide access to new types of coronavirus tests, and change the way it makes testing available to residents.
With a second surge of COVID-19 cases underway in Massachusetts and as elected officials urge people to get tested regardless of their own symptoms or exposure, lines of people waiting several hours outside the state's free testing sites in the increasingly chilly weather have proliferated in recent days. Lines are also popping up at urgent care sites. It's unclear how many people may be forgoing testing to avoid the lines.
The free testing sites, part of the Stop the Spread initiative, are generally located in communities at high risk of coronavirus transmission and are a popular option for people who want to be tested but don't have symptoms and have not been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, making it likely they would have to spend $160 to be tested elsewhere.
The sites are also seeing additional traffic from people who want to be tested before seeing others for Thanksgiving next week.
"It's an issue, I agree," Baker said Tuesday afternoon when asked about the increased demand for free testing.
At the free testing site at Lawrence General Hospital, demand for coronavirus testing has been so high in recent days that officials announced Tuesday that it will stop allowing more people to get in line once the wait has exceeded two hours.
"Increased community spread of COVID-19 combined with a higher number of people seeking tests before holiday travel is leading to higher volume at the testing center," the hospital said. "With an estimated wait time of 4-5 hours on Mondays and Tuesdays, we will be closing the end of the wait line to accommodate everyone in line and will continue increased hours of operation by opening an hour earlier at 8:00 am."
The governor said the state is constrained in some ways by the federal government's guidelines for testing but that his administration has "a bunch of things going on with respect to testing generally and asymptomatic testing in particular" and is looking for ways to do more.
"As we move into the rest of this year, you'll see us working to try to get some latitude from the feds to do some things that will help with respect to the lines we have now around our existing testing protocols," Baker said. "But I think you're also going to see some new products come into the marketplace that are going to make it possible for people to significantly expand testing without necessarily having to use the pathways and the routes that we've used traditionally to make this happen."
One new product Baker mentioned was Abbott's BinaxNOW, a 15-minute rapid antigen test that uses a nasal swab and test card. Last month, the Trump administration said it was sending more than two million of the BinaxNOW tests to Massachusetts The tests "will be distributed at the discretion of Governor Charlie Baker to support testing K-12 students, teachers, nursing home patients and staff, higher education, critical infrastructure, first responders, and other priorities as he deems fit," the federal government said at the time, while adding that the state has indicated plans to use the BinaxNOW tests "to support K-12 schools."
Baker said Tuesday his administration "just finished a fairly big sampling exercise around accuracy and performance" of the tests and expects to get "a couple of million" of them in total.
On most recent weekdays, somewhere between about 70,000 and 105,000 coronavirus tests have been performed each day. On Saturdays and Sundays, the number of tests conducted typically drops to between 25,000 and 35,000, according to the Department of Public Health.
In some ways, the long lines at free testing sites mean people are listening to the messages coming from Baker and other elected leaders like Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. Baker's administration "urges" people living in high-risk communities to get tested regardless of whether they have symptoms and Walsh recently launched a "Get The Test Boston" pledge, in which local employers commit to making sure their employees know when and how to get tested.