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Baker overstated the number of protesters who tested positive for COVID

Medical workers took down personal information from those driving in to take a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus testing location in the Cambridge Health Alliance testing tent on June 18.
Medical workers took down personal information from those driving in to take a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus testing location in the Cambridge Health Alliance testing tent on June 18.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

By nearly all accounts, the development was positive news: 2.5 percent of demonstrators who took part in events protesting police brutality and systemic racism had tested positive for the novel coronavirus at free testing sites across Massachusetts. Governor Charlie Baker, in making the announcement Tuesday, said he considered the figure to be “quite low.”

It also was wrong.

The figure Baker originally disclosed was, in fact, nearly double the actual share of demonstrators who received positive COVID-19 tests, according to data released Friday by his administration. The state’s new disclosure shows that of 16,526 tests conducted across the 50-plus pop-up testing sites, about 1.3 percent came back positive.

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Baker, speaking Tuesday, had said there had been 17,617 tests conducted — which also inflated the number of tests that demonstrators received — meaning at the 2.5 percent rate he cited, about 440 people would have tested positive for COVID.

But, in reality, there were 210 positive tests, according to results submitted from the individual sites and released Friday in response to a Globe request.

A Baker spokeswoman said Friday that since the governor’s announcement, officials “continued to refine the data, including removing some duplicative records,” to explain the marked difference in the data.

The 1.27 percent positive rate “is the most up-to-date number” for the tests conducted on demonstrators and protesters, the spokeswoman confirmed.

The new data doesn’t dramatically change the conclusion that Baker and epidemiologists had originally drawn: Even as thousands of people gathered in demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many had taken precautions such as wearing face coverings that experts believe can dramatically reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Baker also noted that virtually all the events took place outside, and in many cases, people were moving, further helping to blunt any potential transmission. The test results, he said Tuesday, were a “big indicator about how important it is for people to follow the guidance and the rules.”

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In a statement, state officials described the new numbers as “updated” self-reported data the state had aggregated from the 52 testing sites, more than half of which were run by CVS. The majority of the free tests were conducted on June 17 and 18; four sites collectively offered hundreds of tests on a third day.

Cambridge Health Alliance reported the most tests, conducting 3,575 across three pop-up sites in Cambridge, Malden, and Somerville, 1.2 percent of which were positive.

But the sites with the highest positive rates were in hard-hit, predominantly minority cities that have already suffered high infection rates. They included the Lynn Community Health Center, where 3.4 percent of 174 tests came back positive; MGH Chelsea, where 3.2 percent of 251 tests were positive; and Lawrence General Hospital in Lawrence, where 3 percent of 643 tests were positive.

When combining those results with other testing data from those two days, the state’s overall positive test rate stood at 2.45 percent over the stretch, a figure that hews closely to what Baker originally described for the free testing sites alone.

The Baker administration did not release a breakdown of demographic data for those who received tests at the pop-up sites. But with the addition of those sites, the number of younger people being tested statewide soared compared to the previous two days.

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For people in their 20s, it jumped by 53 percent, the largest increase for any age group, the data show. Testing of people in their 30s also spiked, by 45 percent, as did those given to people 19 or younger, which saw a 31 percent jump.

In fact, all age groups saw some type of increase, except for those 80 years or older.

The data did not show significant increases in testing on Hispanic and Black people on those two days compared to the previous two. But the figures come with a caveat: In half the tests conducted across the state on June 17 and June 18, no data on race or ethnic status was recorded.


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