The number of coronavirus tests in Massachusetts stands at the lowest rate in months, even as other nearby states have stepped up their efforts to the highest levels yet.
The lull in testing emerges despite the Baker administration’s new, ambitious plan to dramatically increase coronavirus testing amid a downward trend in infections and a staggered reopening of businesses across the state.
The state has the ability to process 30,000 tests each day, according to a plan submitted May 30 to federal regulators. Yet data show Massachusetts has been using one-third of that capacity, averaging about 8,800 per day into early June.
At the same time, testing across the country has largely increased. New York, for example, recorded its largest number of people tested on Friday, after trending upward for several weeks. Rhode Island also tested its largest number last week, too.
The reason for the lull in testing in Massachusetts remains unclear. The Baker administration said in a statement that its stay at home advisory, social distancing, and face coverings have reduced the number of COVID-19 cases, and thus demand for tests. But the latest figures raise questions about whether the state can reach its testing goal. And even if it does build the capacity, will enough people turn out for tests?
Public health experts roundly agree that more testing is needed. They also acknowledged one possible factor for the drop in tests: With Massachusetts reopening, many might feel that coronavirus is no longer a real threat.
“People don’t want to get stabbed in the back of the nose [for a test] if they feel there isn’t a really good reason to do so,” said Dr. Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor of Global Health at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Nichols suspects there will be another wave of infections as the state reopens, and suggested that massive crowds at recent demonstrations about racism and police brutality further underscore the need for expansive testing.
The Baker administration’s statement said that demand for testing will “vary as the pandemic progresses. The Commonwealth’s goal is to have sufficient testing capacity should we experience another surge.”
Public health experts, advocates, and medical workers say a demand for testing still exists, and that access remains an issue, especially in communities of color and low income, where red tape and miscommunication have led to residents being turned away from testing sites.
“What’s needed is more testing without people having to go through flaming hoops," said Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrant’s Assistance Center in New Bedford.
A coalition of doctors and leaders of community and public health groups on Thursday called on the Baker administration to provide more protections — including better access to testing — for people of color, the elderly, and others at high risk. They said many are being told at testing sites they must have symptoms of COVID-19 to qualify, even though a growing body of research suggests as many as 45 percent of those infected show no symptoms.
At Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, one of the state’s largest community health centers, administrators are learning how to ease patient access to tests. The facility opened a drive-thru testing site two weeks ago in collaboration with Lawrence General Hospital.
“We are adjusting things, like initially people needed appointments and we find that our patients really do better when being able to come when ever it’s convenient for them,” said Dr. Zandra Kelley, the center’s chief medical officer.
Kelley said some people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of infection, or don’t understand the rules for testing have been relaxed.
Officials and public health experts have repeatedly cited sufficient testing and contact tracing as the key to recovery.
“[A] slow opening is fine, but you’ve really got to push more on testing,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Ten thousand tests [a day] is probably not enough for Massachusetts. Not right now. We should be doing more.”
Massachusetts, like many other states, was plagued by a shortage of testing supplies earlier in the pandemic, leading to strict rules of who could be tested. Now, as shortages have eased, Massachusetts has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 testing rates in the world, according to the Baker administration.
Across Massachusetts, 9 percent of the population has been tested for COVID-19, but the rate has varied significantly from town to town. In the most recent week, Dedham had five times more people tested per capita than Amherst, according to the state’s latest data. Cambridge had a testing rate four times higher than Chicopee. And New Bedford had a rate three times higher than Weymouth.
The state recently received $374 million from the federal government to expand its testing program. As part of the deal, the state had to submit a blueprint of its plan to federal regulators.
Among the priorities, the state said, was new partnerships, such as one between community groups and laboratories that process tests. It pointed to a partnership formed in late April between community health centers and Quest Diagnostics, which has a lab in Marlborough and processes many of the state’s tests.
Kerin O’Toole, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said that after facing such an acute shortage of testing kits for so long, the 26 centers in the partnership are grateful for the kits provided by Quest.
However, health centers in the partnership, which are producing a total of about 565 tests per day, would need more staffing to hit the daily goal outlined in the state’s report of 2,000 per day, according to O’Toole.
“Testing and tracing are critical to keeping our families, neighbors, and communities healthy and safe,” O’Toole said.