Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Baker administration on Wednesday announced new testing guidelines and initiatives affecting a broad swath of Massachusetts students — from kindergarten through college — aimed at squelching infections before they spread.
Under the plans, the state will roll out quick-turnaround tests to 134 public school districts, charters, and special education collaboratives in early December to screen students and staff who show any COVID-19 symptoms, however mild.
More immediately, Governor Charlie Baker said college students need to get a negative test within 72 hours of leaving for the Thanksgiving break, in order to limit the spread of the virus.
The actions come as sites from Springfield to Boston are swamped with hours-long waiting lines with people seeking tests before traveling to be with family for the holiday — even though Baker has implored people to avoid traditional gatherings. Scenes of people queuing in the cold provide a stark reminder that authorities still have not solved testing bottlenecks.
“A lot of folks aren’t paying attention to my guidance with respect to the holidays,” Baker said at a State House news conference. “It’s pretty clear based on those lines that a lot of people are going to travel over the holidays. There’s not much at this point that we can do, other than say, we think that’s not a great idea.”
The K-12 testing regime is the first wave of an effort the state hopes will help keep schools open. Unlike the molecular tests at most sites that take days for results, the rapid antigen Abbott BinaxNOW tests to be used in Massachusetts will allow schools to test students and staff and receive results within 15 minutes. The tests are being supplied by the federal government and provided to districts for free in a voluntary program.
Schools must obtain parent or guardian consent prior to administering tests to students, and a positive result will require a follow-up molecular test to confirm.
Rapid antigen tests have not been as accurate as molecular tests, and under federal guidelines, the Abbott test is intended to be used only on symptomatic people. But the Baker administration said it recently validated the Abbott product by comparing it to molecular tests, which are the current gold standard.
In a study of 1,600 participants enrolled at a Lawrence testing site, the BinaxNOW tests detected COVID-19 in 82 percent of individuals who tested positive in molecular tests. The Baker administration said that boosts its confidence in the accuracy of the rapid tests.
A leading Harvard scientist who has been championing rapid antigen tests, and chiding governments for not widely using them to more quickly pinpoint infections, applauded Baker’s initiative.
“I am really glad to see that Governor Baker is starting to lead the way in using these types of tests routinely in schools. I think it’s a terrific decision,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Mina and other infectious disease experts have lambasted the federal government for not approving rapid antigen tests for regular at-home use, a move they say will identify more people earlier in their illness when they are most infectious.
Massachusetts schools using the new antigen tests must meet six criteria, including the ability to complete state health reporting requirements and ensure staff who administer the tests are trained, said state Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley.
Despite fears that K-12 students would super-spread COVID-19 infections, recent research indicates that is likely not the case. One of the largest studies, from Brown University, analyzed data from about 200,000 students attending school in-person from 47 states and found an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff.
But fears are growing that college students may fuel more outbreaks when they travel home for Thanksgiving. Yet it is unclear if all colleges — and tens of thousands of their students — will be able to meet the recommended 72-hour testing window.
Some universities test students once a week. So if a student gets tested on Thursday and leaves campus Tuesday, they would be outside the 72-hour period. The new guidelines say residential students who test positive should immediately isolate in campus housing, which would preclude travel.
Colleges said they are reviewing Baker’s testing advice, informing students about the guidelines and trying to determine if any changes need to be made.
Framingham State University said it is encouraging students who were tested this week and want to leave campus early to do so by Friday. Otherwise, they should remain on campus and be tested at the next scheduled time on Tuesday, said Dan Magazu, a university spokesman.
“We cannot guarantee everything, but we are going to do our very best to follow this guidance to ensure the safety of our students and the community at large,” Magazu said. “Legally, we cannot force students to remain on campus. The guidance says we should ‘advise’ students of what to do, and that is certainly what we are doing.”
Meanwhile, long testing lines seemed unending Wednesday across the state for just about everyone else. Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest companies processing tests nationwide, said Monday that its average turnaround time has grown to more than two days. It said heavy demand for testing has produced shortages of critical supplies to create and process the tests.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Command Center said the state’s average turnaround time is slightly better, just under two days. But she said results from some commercial labs are taking longer than four days, although those tests make up fewer than 2.2 percent of daily test volume in November.
Still, frustration is mounting in many long testing lines.
Jesse Hlava and his wife drove 20 miles from their home in Amherst to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield — the closest free, state testing site — for a test Wednesday. They expected a line, but not one that stretched for more than two hours.
“It’s ridiculous,” Hlava said as he sat in his car waiting.
Hlava said he and his wife have been debating whether to spend Thanksgiving with family and in case they do, would like some assurance from a negative test result.
Paris Cal, 24, waited in line in the cold for three hours at the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center in Boston on Wednesday for a test. The state should have developed some sort of mobile app to alert people about wait times, she said.
“It’s easy to go get a free test, but it’s hard to know how long you’ll be there to get it,” Cal said.
Cal wanted to make sure she tested negative before she flies to Seattle on Sunday to see her parents and spend a quiet Thanksgiving with them. She said she understands that coronavirus cases are rising, but she will be wearing a mask, limiting interaction with people at the airport, and sticking close to her family’s home.
“It’s a hard time right now — staying here I would be by myself,” Cal said. “I wanted to take all precautions.”
Travis Anderson and Erin Clark of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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