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Coronavirus testing, transparency ramp up, but still lag recommended levels

New drive-through clinics have emerged as the state has begun testing hundreds of people a day.

A nurse held swabs and a test tube kit to test people for Covid-19, at a drive through station in Royal Oak, Mich.
A nurse held swabs and a test tube kit to test people for Covid-19, at a drive through station in Royal Oak, Mich.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Screening for the coronavirus has continued to ramp up in Massachusetts in recent days, with drive-through testing stations operating in Hyannis and Middleton, as Governor Charlie Baker’s administration began providing more data about the scope of its efforts to track and slow the pandemic.

But even as private labs helped increase capacity, the state remained far below the 1,000 tests a day public health experts warned were necessary to assess the full extent of Covid-19′s spread. The state’s increased transparency did offer a fuller picture of efforts to track and diagnose the virus.

The Department of Public Health announced that 327 more people had been screened for coronavirus in the last day as of Monday morning, increasing the total of total number of people tested statewide to 1,296 since Feb. 28. The new figures included 204 tests performed by private laboratories operated by Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp.

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So far, 197 people have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the state. Massachusetts had another eight positive results prior to Feb. 28, when specimens were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A letter signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts sought information Monday from the Trump administration about its “failure to ensure that diagnostic tests are available for coronavirus disease.” The letter cited reports of shortages of cotton swabs, gloves, and other protective gear needed to perform the tests. In Massachusetts, the drive-through testing facility in Middleton was down to its last 20 swab kits.

“The ability to accurately and swiftly test for COVID-19 is critical to informing public health decisions —like social distancing, quarantining, and contact tracing — which can slow the exponential growth of the virus,” reads the letter, signed by Warren, Markey, and 15 other Democrats.

Meanwhile, state officials said they were looking for additional ways to ramp up testing.

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"We’re talking primarily to a number of private sector entities that have been designated by the White House to be sort of the leads on developing the mobile infrastructure,” Baker said at an afternoon press conference.

Despite the increased transparency, the Baker administration still declined Monday to provide some specifics about the state’s testing efforts. It did not indicate how many of the roughly 1,300 tests were pending and how many of the tests had come back negative. The state has said tests take about 24 to 48 hours to complete, but some who have been tested say their results have taken far longer.

The administration provided a county-level breakdown of cases, but it has not routinely provided more detailed information on the local level.

For Eastern Equine Encephalitis, the state health department does routinely release community specific warnings about health risk levels for the mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal. The department reports each new infection by county, then lists the communities in that county where residents should be vigilant in precautions because of elevated risk.

With Covid-19, the department said community spread, from person to person, is now clearly happening in at least seven counties. But the state says it is unable to give more granular details about hot spots. Public health specialists say Massachusetts is not yet doing enough wide-scale testing for Covid-19 to be able to inform the public in a similar manner.

Dr. Sandro Galea, a physician, epidemiologist, and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, said he was surprised that Massachusetts, which usually does a strong job in public health, has lagged in communicating more comprehensive testing results to the public.

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“We do a very good job of releasing testing around other diseases,” Galea said. “I am not sure why we are not releasing all of this data.”

Attorney General Maura Healey has been critical of Baker’s handling of the crisis, and said in an interview Monday that the administration needs to be more aggressive and release more information.

“Providing testing data in a transparent, real-time way is important to help understand the scope of the problem and then make sure that resources get to where they need to be,” Healey said. “I also think it’s critical to influencing social behavior. A reason so many people were congregating in bars and restaurants, perhaps, is that they didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation.”

On Cape Cod, health officials Monday announced a drive-through Covid-19 testing system for patients who have been pre-screened and have a doctor’s order and an appointment. The drive-through, a partnership between Cape Cod Healthcare, a large provider on the Cape, and the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment, is running seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Cape Cod Community College.

“These testing capabilities will allow Cape Cod Healthcare to address a critical need to identify and slow the spread of Covid-19 in our community,” said Michael Lauf, president and CEO of Cape Cod Healthcare.

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Congenial Healthcare, a North Shore practice with 50,000 patients across five locations, began a drive-though testing site last Friday outside its Middleton office. Dr. Alain Chaoui, head of Congenial, said they erected a tent to avoid infecting other patients and staff inside their offices.

Patients who have a cough, sore throat, fever, or recent travel are asked to come to the tent site for testing. The patient drives under the tent and calls a designated number, and a staffer swathed in protective gear comes out to do the swab. But first they test for flu and other viruses. If those tests are negative, they test for Covid-19.

So far, many have come back positive for flu and other viruses, but none for Covid-19.

“It’s working like clockwork. We are training and learning as we go,” said Chaoui, the past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “We are taking it very seriously.”

There was one catch: Chaoui said they are running out of the special swab kits — and were down to just 20 left.

“When you only have a limited amount of swabs, you try to do your best and triage appropriately,” Chaoui said.

On Monday, some people were still struggling to get tested. Marie Santora, a 76-year-old East Boston resident, came down with an intense dry cough, chills, and a fever that topped 101 degrees. Santora’s son called the Massachusetts General Hospital coronavirus hot line on Sunday and a health care worker asked a series of intake questions.

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Santora was given an appointment at Mass. General for Monday at 10 a.m., with detailed directions about receiving coronavirus testing there. But when Santora arrived, she faced further screening and was told she didn’t meet the criteria because she hadn’t been in contact with someone who came from a foreign country, or who has the virus.

“I was so mad," Santora said. "It was a waste of time.”

Rebecca Ostriker, Felice J. Freyer, and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.