For many Massachusetts residents, the wait for free, accessible COVID-19 testing may finally be over: no symptoms or referrals required.
Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday announced that the state is launching a new Stop The Spread campaign to offer free COVID-19 testing in eight municipalities hit hard by the virus: Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lynn, Lowell, Marlborough, and New Bedford. Starting on Friday, testing centers in these communities will be available to all Massachusetts residents.
Though expanded testing came as welcome relief for people living in the cities selected as testing sites, some public officials and experts fear that the rest of Massachusetts, without a way to seek testing close to home, will be left behind. Targeted testing, they said, may miss the big picture and allow new outbreaks to spread undetected elsewhere in the state.
“It might make sense to have a focal strategy to enhance testing at places or in cities or locations where there are more cases,” said Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University. “I think it would be better to have a more broad-based strategy or a mix of the two — to continue to advance testing overall but perhaps targeting and enhancing it in at-risk neighborhoods or cities.”
Massachusetts on Wednesday reported 162 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 30 more deaths. The state also reported that 9,133 new individuals had been given the coronavirus test, and that the positive test rate had risen to 2 percent, up from 1.9 percent the day before. That metric has hovered between 1.8 percent and 2 percent since June 18. The current number represents a 93 percent drop from mid-April highs.
Still, some communities have remained well above the state’s average positive test rate — a key indicator that measures the percentage of all administered tests that come back positive — even as the number of new cases continues to fall. Baker said the eight cities chosen for the testing campaign make up roughly 9 percent of the state’s population, but 27 percent of all positive tests in Massachusetts have been recorded in them in recent weeks.
Baker, speaking at an afternoon briefing, said the campaign will begin Friday and run through Aug. 14. Information on testing locations is available at mass.gov/stopthespread.
Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito urged residents of the eight cities to get tested to prevent further spread of the virus, but many residents of hard-hit places need little convincing.
Chelsea resident Karla Mendoza, 27, said she’d get tested as soon as possible. She returned to Chelsea last week after spending the worst months of the pandemic in California.
Chelsea has shown the highest per capita infection rate in Massachusetts since the state began releasing that data. And though statistics released Wednesday suggest the city has had some success in beating back the virus, with only 11 new cases reported in the last week, its positive test rate over the last two weeks has remained the highest in the state for any town or city with more than 2,000 residents.
Mendoza said that free, accessible testing would give her peace of mind and make her city feel safer.
“You can get an answer about what’s going on. It’s free, and it doesn’t matter if you are from this country or not. I think that’s awesome, because there are a lot of people that cannot get tested [if they are required to have] insurance,” she said.
For Jessica Gray, who has continued working at her grocery store job throughout the pandemic, news of expanded testing comes as a relief.
“It’s hard [not knowing your coronavirus status], especially going home with two parents who have been sick. It’s hard, very hard,” said Gray, 43. The East Boston resident works in an Everett supermarket and has anxiously followed news of COVID-19 in the area but said she had not previously been able to get tested.
Vinny Aceto, 56, said he plans to be tested on Friday, though he is not showing any symptoms. “I do want to get tested. [Expanded testing] is good.”
Still, Aceto said the state should have expanded testing in hard-hit communities like his home of Everett long ago, when the pandemic was at its peak. “They should have gotten on top of this a lot sooner,” he said.
“I’m encouraged that we have something in place for residents in Chelsea,” said Roy Avellaneda, Chelsea’s City Council president. “As a local city official, I’m trying to get the word out to everybody.”
“I think the governor is making a wise decision to monitor across the board,” Avellaneda said. “Chelsea was the hot spot in the state of Massachusetts, and while our numbers have gone down . . . we’re still watching intensively. As the state reopens, that means more and more Chelsea residents that are primarily essential workers are headed back.”
Chelsea School Committee member Roberto Jiménez Rivera also praised the state for focusing resources on the city. But he expressed concern that the targeted program would leave other parts of the state vulnerable.
“The infection rates don’t stop at our border,” Jiménez said. “We might see spikes in other places, and if we’re not testing and doing contact tracing in other places . . . we’re going to see outbreaks and not be able to control them because we didn’t see them coming.”
Some hard-hit cities are notably missing from the state’s campaign, including Brockton, which has one of the state’s highest infection rates from COVID-19 and had a test positivity rate of 4.87 percent over the last two weeks. Woburn, Revere, and Worcester also had positivity rates exceeding 4 percent.
Hamer, the infectious disease expert, said the state should focus on anticipating future spikes in infection rates, not simply responding to already hard-hit areas.
“It should go beyond just those places that had a bad surge in the beginning,” he said. “There are a number of other locations around the state that one could anticipate might be in trouble if there’s a second surge.”
That risk, Hamer said, falls largely along socioeconomic lines.
“In higher-income neighborhoods, people have been able to better socially distance or stay at home for work. Whereas some people have to go into work because they’re in service industries, they may have to take public transportation, and they’re returning to a setting where there are more people in their building or in their apartment.”