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Mass. increases coronavirus testing, ‘but it’s not nearly enough,’ some say

Thuy Tran prepared samples for genetic testing in the Microbiology Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where work is underway on tests for the novel coronavirus.
Thuy Tran prepared samples for genetic testing in the Microbiology Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where work is underway on tests for the novel coronavirus.Josh Reynolds/The Washington Post

Massachusetts on Sunday announced a big jump in the number of residents who have been tested for the Covid-19 virus in just the previous day, but public health experts warned that the state remains a long way from testing enough people every day to sufficiently halt the spread of the disease.

Officials said 969 people had been tested for coronavirus as of Sunday evening, up from 475 Saturday. The increase followed changes in testing protocols and the addition of testing labs to ease the bottlenecks that many physicians complained were preventing them from diagnosing patients.

The number of positive cases increased by 26, to 164 across the state.

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Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, said the state needs to be testing roughly 1,000 people a day to to make significant progress in slowing the spread of the virus.

“It’s a step in the right direction, it’s a big step, but it’s not nearly enough,” Horsburgh said Sunday. “If we need to identify everyone who is affected, we will need more testing.”

That may happen soon. Federal officials on Sunday announced a major rollout of testing sites and supplies, including “pod”-like facilities that will be set up away from hospital emergency rooms and acute care centers to prevent the spread of infection. Some, he added, will be “drive-through” facilities.

During a news conference at the White House, Admiral Brett P. Giroir, a physician who oversees the Public Health Service’s commissioned corps, said as many as 1.9 million test kits and 2,000 additional labs will become available this week.

“You will see these sites rolling out progressively over the week. This is not make-believe, this is not fantasy,” Giroir said. “We’re focusing on specific locations now. We will start shipping gear, stuff, tomorrow. We will start deploying officers tomorrow and Tuesday, and we’ll begin seeing these sites, in addition to the ones that are springing up now, implemented during the week.”

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Goroir added that health officials will prioritize two groups for testing: health care workers and first-responders, and elderly people with a respiratory symptom and a temperature of 99.6 or higher.

Earlier Sunday, US Senator Edward J. Markey and Dr. Peter Slavin, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital, separately called on the country to adopt a warlike stance against the coronavirus. That means redoubling efforts to provide needed safety equipment for health care workers, medical supplies, and access to more testing kits, they said.

“We are at war with coronavirus, and we need a massive wartime manufacturing mobilization,” Markey said.

Slavin, on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” said he was concerned about the slow pace of testing and noted that Mass. General began doing its own tests on Saturday, after the Food and Drug Administration relaxed its regulations.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health credited several steps for the increased number of tests: the addition of several commercial labs that perform the analysis; a Centers for Disease Control protocol that allows clinicians to submit only one nasal swab, rather than a requirement for nasal and throat swabs; and allowing clinicians more flexibility to determine which patients to test without having to contact the state health department.

“With this change in clinical testing protocols, the State Lab’s testing capacity will increase to approximately 400 patients a day, up from 200 patients a day,” the department said.

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The state currently has access to its public health lab for testing; the Food and Drug Administration has approved tests to be processed by commercial labs run by Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. A third lab, Thermo Fisher Scientific, will be available shortly.

A person who believes they have Covid-19 symptoms should not go to the doctor’s office but should telephone according to the agency spokeswoman. The physician will discuss the symptoms, and if the doctor determines a test is needed, a test sample will be sent to the appropriate lab.

These tests are critical for doctors and researchers to understand the spread of the coronavirus; hospitals rely on data from test results to aid in contingency planning.

Dr. Dani Hackner, chief clinical officer for the SouthCoast Health medical system, said the additional resources will allow more testing.

“I’m pretty confident that we’re moving in the right direction with the expanded testing,” Hackner said Sunday.

But the state’s capacity to test remained unclear Sunday. Governor Charlie Baker, on WCVB’s “On The Record,” said the state will ultimately be able to test about 1,000 people each day, but demurred on when Massachusetts would reach that goal.

“I don’t want to put a date on it, but I would say it’s certainly going to be our objective to get there quickly,” Baker said.

On the show, Baker and his public health commissioner, Monica Bharel, did not directly answer whether the state would provide daily information about test results. On Saturday, Baker said the state would provide updated figures weekly, which was immediately criticized by some public health specialists as being much too infrequent.

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Officials will put out all the information they have in a way that is accurate and timely, Bharel said.

"Right now, if you go to our website, you can find the information about number of individuals and some of those details.”

Baker suggested there would be challenges in releasing testing figures daily if the number of tests conducted each day grew into the hundreds or thousands.

Horsburgh, the Boston University professor, said the public and medical experts need access to that data.

“The people who have it need information; the people who are scared . . . need information; the doctors need information," Horsburgh said. “Everyone’s in the same boat.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.