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Mass. stays course on testing, despite shift in federal guidelines

Local public health experts join the chorus of outrage over change by the CDC, calling it unwarranted and dangerous.

Coronavirus testing is done on Buffum Street by the Lynn Community Health Center.
Coronavirus testing is done on Buffum Street by the Lynn Community Health Center.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Massachusetts continues to recommend testing for asymptomatic people who come in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, despite new federal guidelines saying such tests are unnecessary, a spokesman for the command center overseeing the state’s COVID-19 response said Thursday.

“While we are reviewing this changed federal guidance, it is not anticipated that any immediate changes will be made to the current testing protocols,” the spokesman, Tory Mazzola, said in a statement. The state has been offering free testing for anyone in high-risk communities.

Meanwhile, Boston-area public health experts joined their peers around the country in decrying as “harmful” and “awful” the new COVID-19 testing guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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In an abrupt shift, the CDC this week revised its guidelines to say that people don’t need tests when they’ve had contact with an infected person but don’t have symptoms themselves. Previously, the CDC had recommended that such people get tested, amid strong evidence that many get infected and spread the virus without ever feeling ill.

On Thursday, CDC Director Robert Redfield tried to soften the guidelines’ effect by saying testing “may be considered” for asymptomatic people who have had contact with confirmed or probable cases. According to STAT, Redfield said the guidelines were intended to place “an emphasis” on testing people with symptoms and people vulnerable to infection.

“Everyone who wants a test does not necessarily need a test; the key is to engage the needed public health community in the decision with the appropriate follow-up action,” Redfield wrote in a statement to media outlets.

But Redfield did not retract the new guidelines, which advise people who have been in close contact with an infected person: “You do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one.”

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Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said Thursday that the change is inexplicable, because the science on coronavirus transmission has not changed.

“Basically, there is no good reason to have made this change,” Jha said. “It’s clearly going to be harmful.” The new guidelines, he said, will likely “accelerate the number of new infections.”

Jha speculated that the Trump administration might be responding to the strain on the nation’s testing capacity. But if government officials believe they need to ration limited testing supplies, he said, they should just “level with the American people.”

The recent politicization of the CDC has tarnished its longstanding image as a reliable source of objective public health guidance, forcing the public to try to figure out which guidelines are based on science and which on politics, Jha said. “It’s a whole new world, and I don’t think the American people are being served well,” he said.

Eleanor J. Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University, strongly criticized the new guidelines Wednesday via Twitter.

“This is 100% completely absolutely awful. If the CDC’s recommendations can be changed for political reasons, then we cannot rely on them to keep us safe,” Murray tweeted. “And if we can’t rely on the CDC, then who do we have left???”

Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also took to social media to voice opposition to the changes.

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“At what point does society rise up?” Mina tweeted in response to a CNN story about the new guidelines. “We have a Trump administration apparently placing politics and image over American lives. At every turn, the administration has afforded #COVID19 every opportunity to spread further. This is a national travesty and should be called out as such.”

The governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Kentucky, and Washington — all Democrats — have denounced the CDC’s move, using words like “reckless” and “indefensible.” Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, did not comment beyond issuing the command center’s assurance that state policy would probably not change.

On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said he wasn’t part of the discussion that green-lighted the change. Fauci told CNN he was undergoing surgery when the new guidance was discussed last week, adding he was “worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact it is.”

An array of medical organizations issued statements Wednesday and Thursday opposing the change. Dr. Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, called the guideline revision “a recipe for community spread and more spikes in coronavirus” and urged the CDC to “release the scientific justification for this change in testing guidelines.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges called the change “irresponsible,” saying that more, not less, testing is needed now. The Infectious Diseases Society of America, the HIV Medicine Association, and the American Public Health Association also denounced the move.

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Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.