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State to offer free coronavirus testing for those who protested

The coalition of Black youth marched from Nubian Square to City Hall on Saturday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Monday said the state will offer free COVID-19 tests this week at more than 50 pop-up sites in Massachusetts for those who have joined the recent protests or demonstrations against police brutality.

The effort, which state officials hope will draw as many as 20,000 people over Wednesday and Thursday, could help gauge for the first time locally whether the hundreds of events that have dotted the state in recent weeks helped spread the coronavirus.

Some 300 demonstrations across the region have drawn thousands, with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder in streets, parks, and outside the State House, with some wearing masks and others not. Spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer, the demonstrations have broadly condemned police brutality and systemic racism, and have fed into a burgeoning national movement seeking racial justice and equity.

The events have been predominately peaceful after an initial spurt of violence saw waves of looting and vandalism across downtown Boston. As demonstrations proliferated, Baker voiced support for people’s right to peacefully protest, but the Republican also preached vigilance against the virus, arguing that much remains unknown about a disease that has sickened 105,690 and killed 7,647 people statewide.

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Thus far, the public health data Massachusetts releases each day have shown no noticeable spike in cases in recent weeks, during which many restaurants, stores, and other public places have started to reopen.. On Tuesday, the state reported 87 new cases — the lowest one-day total since March 20 — and 23 new deaths. Nearly 4,500 new individuals were tested, according to state data.

Baker pleaded with people to take advantage of the free testing sites — if not for themselves, for their families.

“Please, if you were at a large gathering in the last couple of weeks . . . find a testing site near you,” Baker said. “If you’re healthy and feeling fine, you should consider getting tested anyway. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is also about protecting other people around you: moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters.”

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Some cities and states have either increased testing, or offered it for free, as sprawling demonstrations have combined with the ever-looming threat of the pandemic. Boston last week announced it was offering a pop-up testing site in Roxbury for protesters for two days, and Illinois officials this month said anyone, regardless of symptoms, could seek out testing at nearly a dozen state-run sites.

In some places, officials say the early returns have been encouraging. In Minnesota, more than 3,300 people who participated in protests or demonstrations were tested last week at four sites, with early results showing few testing positive. In Seattle, fewer than 1 percent of the thousands tested after attending protests there were positive, officials said.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said Massachusetts officials “are assuming and we would be thrilled” to draw 10,000 people each of the two days the testing sites are open in Massachusetts, a load that would effectively double the number of patients tested statewide most days.

To accommodate that, Sudders said the state sought to create more sites offering longer hours. A web site the state set up showed 53 sites in total Monday, stretching from Provincetown to Pittsfield.

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Nearly 40 sites are operating by appointment-only, including the 29 at CVS locations where tests will be offered between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day. Others are taking walk-ins, including sites in Cambridge, Chelsea, and Lynn, while those in Jamaica Plain, Gardner, and Fitchburg are exclusively walk-in. Some sites will be open as late as 7 or 8 p.m.

The results will be confidential, and Baker said state officials opted for weekdays, arguing that testing data on the weekend “actually end up being less great.”

“It was very important, we didn’t want to tax the testing capacity we currently have,” Sudders said. “We were trying very hard to have early morning hours, into the evening hours.”

Baker said there have been nearly 300 protests across the state where more than 100 people had gathered, a stretch that included events across Boston this past weekend. He said officials began discussing last week about “creating some mechanism” to gauge whether the disease has spread amid the demonstrations, even though many people took precautions, such as wearing face coverings.

“There was also a lot of chanting and yelling. And those, right up there with singing, is one of the things that a lot of the medical community worries about,” Baker said of factors that can trigger transmission.

For Massachusetts to offer viral testing to a focused group who self-identify as attending protests is a “smart way in getting some numbers to answer that question," said Sarah Fortune, chair of the department of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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“The risk of contracting COVID in the state right now is really low. If you’re going to do focused testing on anybody, you definitely should focus it on higher risk groups,” Fortune said.

The harder question to answer, she said, is whether those who have actively spoken out against racism and other systemic problems in government agencies will now submit for testing under a government-offered program.

“Has there been such an erosion of trust in government . . . that particularly this group of people will be willing to show up for testing?” she said. “I think that’s the more complicated question.”

Even amid positive trends locally, there are other concerns. COVID-19 infections have been on the rise in nearly two dozen other states, according to data showing the three-day moving average of confirmed new cases, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, adding to the complicated picture of the virus’s impact.

Asked if he would roll back reopening if there were a spike in cases in Massachusetts, Baker emphasized that the state is relying on testing and contact tracing to control the outbreak.

“We’ve said all along that our goal here is to be cautious about the way we move forward and to use our testing and tracing program to make sort of quick adjustments to deal with hot spots or issues of significance," Baker said. “We would much prefer that strategy.”

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The other strategy is one Baker has not ruled out: snapping the state back into a lockdown.

Martin Finucane and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Free virus testing for protestors
Governor Baker said the state will offer free popup coronavirus testing at more than 50 locations for attendees of recent racism and police brutality protests. (Photo: Sam Doran/Pool, Video: Handout)

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.