Checklist for this year’s Maine vacation rental: sunscreen, bug spray, hiking boots, plenty of good books … and a required COVID-19 test?
About that last item. New Maine guidelines mandate that out-of-state visitors (except those from New Hampshire and Vermont, and now New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test conducted no longer than 72 hours before arrival. That requirement has stymied many Massachusetts residents, who say they’ve encountered a baffling array of rules among different testing sites, making it challenging to get timely results.
They’re finding that many places simply won’t test people who admit they are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have not been in close contact with someone who is known to be infected — the criteria to get tested under state guidelines. Those guidelines, however, give health care providers discretion to test more broadly, if they believe the situation warrants it.
Among those recently stumped is Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. Pavlos was trying to help her brother and his family find a testing site around Boston because they wanted to bring their mother to Maine early this month.
“My brother is an attorney, and I am head of a public health association, and we couldn’t figure out how to get a test,” Pavlos said. “I think it says something about the accessibility of testing in this state if the two of us, who are pretty well resourced and very experienced doing background work — if we can’t figure it out, that means we don’t have enough access to testing.”
The apparent challenges residents have faced getting quick turnaround tests may come as a surprise in a state that has made significant strides on testing and beating back the virus.
Testing availability has steadily grown in Massachusetts since the start of the pandemic, with dozens of sites opening in recent weeks. And some cities and towns, including Boston, are providing testing at public health centers with fewer restrictions.
There’s even an interactive website launched by the Baker administration in May that allows residents to search among hundreds of testing sites statewide, with the information supplied directly from the companies providing the tests.
But residents will find caveats from many of these places, including restrictions on testing because of limited supplies. Others require a doctor’s referral or prescreening for a test, with an additional charge. The turn-around times for results also vary greatly, from 24 hours to as many as four days.
While health insurance typically covers COVID-19 testing, residents are finding that sometimes doesn’t apply if they are seeking one for vacation. Some places won’t quote a price, saying they will first try to bill the customer’s health insurance plan, and if that’s not successful, will then send a bill to the customer. Other testing sites post their fees, with each COVID-19 test costing about $160.
And it’s not just people seeking a test for vacation who are running into problems, Pavlos said.
“For many people who are back at work, they need access because they need to know if they have been exposed [to the virus] and might have exposed their family members,” she said.
Eventually, Pavlos said her family found a community health center in Boston to perform their tests.
When asked during a Tuesday news briefing whether the state would be expanding access to testing for more people who are not experiencing symptoms, Governor Charlie Baker said, “We are going to continue to work on developing strategies with our colleagues in local government and in the community health center community generally to come up with strategies to test on a go-forward basis.” He did not elaborate.
One critical concern about expanding access is the supply of testing materials. An administration spokeswoman said that while there have not been major shortages as there were earlier in the pandemic, there have been an increasing number of laboratories reporting challenges in purchasing supplies to process the tests.
But more testing sites are springing up. One of the newest locations is at NEW Health, a community health center in Boston’s North End. The center launched a COVID-19 testing site Tuesday that offers free tests with no requirements about symptoms or the need for a doctor’s referral. It does, however, require proof of residency in the North End.
NEW Health’s chief executive, James Luisi, said vacations and tourism drove their decision to create as hassle-free a testing site as soon as possible.
“With restaurants opening in the North End, we are getting hundreds of tourists,” Luisi said. “And ... we are concerned about people coming back from holiday to the North End, we are concerned there could be an outbreak here.”
The city of Cambridge is also offering free tests, with no restrictions listed, to “anyone who lives in Cambridge,” during the month of July, according to a news release from the city’s health department.
But still, many Massachusetts residents are apparently running into problems getting tested, said Sarah Diment, owner of the Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, Maine. Diment has received dozens of cancellations, and many would-be guests cited hurdles in testing.
“Most people say it’s too expensive because their insurance company won’t cover it because they’re not sick,” she said. “And if you have two adults and two grown children, and you’re up here for three nights, you are adding a fair amount of cost to your reservation.”
One Framingham resident recently canceled after trying several testing sites and realizing it would cost her family $500 just for the tests, alone, Diment said.
The hurdles in Western Massachusetts are equally challenging, said Carol and Andrew Klyman. The couple, who live in Westhampton, usually rent a house in Boothbay, Maine, in early August with some friends. The Klymans recently scoured the state’s website for options and kept running into dead ends: sites that required a person to have symptoms in order to be tested or could not promise a turn-around time within three days, as required by Maine’s rules.
The Klymans, both attorneys, said they are not the type to fudge facts about suffering symptoms of COVID-19.
“I am not that sort of person. At least not yet,” joked Andrew.
They finally decided to book appointments at a place in Hadley that said it can take up to four days for results. But the Klymans are hoping it’s faster than that.
“It’s just very frustrating,” Andrew said. “We understand how important it is, and we want to do our bit to be good citizens, to make sure no one else gets sick and we don’t get sick. But testing should be more universally available.”