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‘Oppressive’ and ‘unbelievable’: Long testing lines frustrate Mass. residents and obscure COVID surge reality

Roseta Carroll, who went first to show her 5-year-old daughter, Keziah Scarlett, that it wasn’t painful, received a COVID test at Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center’s site inside Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Grove Hall.Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

The lines crawled past churches, restaurants, and shops. They stretched along bike paths and filled entire parking lots. Some leaked into roadways, disrupting traffic and prompting police intervention. Each promised one thing: an hours-long wait for a COVID-19 test.

Throughout the state, residents have swarmed testing sites this week, some looking for assurance they aren’t infectious and can travel or attend social gatherings, others suffering from fever and coughs and seeking confirmation of their worst fears. On Tuesday, Massachusetts officially marked its 1 millionth case of COVID-19 since February 2020, a sobering milestone that was quickly blown past as thousands more cases rolled in the following day.

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The chaotic scenes at testing sites are merely a snapshot of a nationwide problem. Few states have been able to meet the crushing demand for tests as Omicron gains ground. The question echoing in Massachusetts and around the country: When will these testing woes improve?

The Baker administration on Wednesday announced a plan to help alleviate one part of the problem: the high cost and low inventory of rapid tests. The state reached a deal with three major manufacturers to sell discounted bulk shipments of rapid test kits to cities and towns. Municipalities can use federal COVID relief money to buy the kits, officials said in a statement.

The administration did not indicate whether it would add sites that provide the more comprehensive PCR tests, or if it would provide existing test facilities with money to help meet the staggering demand.

Cyril Ubiem, who has overseen the COVID center at the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center in Dorchester since last spring, said he has never seen so many positive cases in one day as he did on Monday.

“When a positive test results comes up in the system, it appears as red. On Monday, it was just red, red, red, red, red, red. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. This is an outbreak. This is definitely an outbreak,’ ” said Ubiem.

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In total, roughly 75 of the 240 PCR tests administered at the clinic that day came back positive, suggesting a startlingly high positivity rate of 31 percent. Ubiem’s staff — at least those who had not tested positive themselves — spent much of Wednesday notifying the infected of their status, a laborious process that stymied their ability to administer more tests to the growing throng of people outside. Stretched too thin, the center ultimately had to shut down operations early on Wednesday.

In Cambridge, which has enjoyed relatively speedy and ubiquitous testing since last summer, a line wrapped around the three blocks surrounding St. John’s the Evangelist Church in Porter Square Wednesday afternoon. The testing site wouldn’t officially open for another half-hour. But before the Christmas holiday, some had waited as long as four hours and the early arrivers were looking to beat the crowd

The line on Haskell Street snaked a block away from the St. John the Evangelist Church testing in Cambridge on Wednesday. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

.

The doors opened at 2 p.m. and test-seekers shuffled in and out of the church basement in roughly two minutes. But the line — described by those who were waiting in it as “oppressive,” “insane,” and “unbelievable” — only got longer.

At 13.58 percent, the seven-day average statewide positivity rate is higher now than at any other point this year. The last time Massachusetts hit that measure of the prevalence of the virus was May 12, 2020, when testing was fairly sparse — just 15,000 a day compared to the current daily average of 92,000 — and was largely limited to those with symptoms, thus skewing the percentage higher.

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Even so, many experts believe the numbers fail to convey the scope of COVID’s reach this winter because of the difficulty in obtaining tests.

Newton-based Transformative Healthcare runs about a dozen PCR testing sites in partnership with the state as part of its “Stop the Spread " initiative, which makes COVID-19 tests free for residents. Nick Mavrick, the company’s senior vice president of business development and marketing, said scaling up testing is easy: Add more locations or add more staff. But the company can’t increase capacity at any of its testing sites unless its client — the state government —agrees.

Mavrick said he does not know if the state plans to change its testing capacity with Transformative Healthcare. He said new testing sites could be added, from an operational standpoint, in less than a week.

Marlborough Hospital set up a drive through coronavirus COVID-19 testing site Wednesday in the parking lot of the New England Sports Center, posting hours from 8:00 am to noon or until supplies ran out. Supplies ran out just after noon.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Mavrick said adding more staff to existing testing locations, or establishing new ones, would be more effective than setting up the much bigger mass-testing sites.

”It’s almost like gas stations. You have to make a them ubiquitous,” he said. “If you had to drive to one spot in town to get gas, it’s inconvenient.”

The surge in cases across the United States in the past two weeks has also sparked unprecedented demand for at-home rapid tests, such as the BinaxNOW and QuickVue kits, due to their convenience and speed.

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Gabor Bethlendy, a diagnostics executive and entrepreneur who runs an online COVID-19 test marketplace, said the tests have advantages to in-person testing sites, which he doesn’t see as a long-term solution.

”If anything the pandemic has shown us, it is that we’re very good at ordering [stuff] to our house and we hate going out,” he said. “Most humans, on average, choose the shortest, quickest route because we’re busy.”

But such tests are hard to find these days, with both pharmacies and big retailers regularly running out of stock. Even state agencies are struggling to find tests.

People waited outside of Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center’s COVID-19 testing site at Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Grove Hall on Wednesday.Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education notched a win this week by procuring some 200,000 rapid tests that will be sent to teachers and staff to use before returning from the holiday break.

“DESE staff worked very hard to secure these at-home rapid antigen tests for schools and we are all grateful for their efforts and hard work to help schools during this difficult time,” state Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement Wednesday. “We all remain committed to keeping schools open despite the recent uptick in COVID cases.”

President Biden also said the White House will begin distributing 500 million rapid COVID-19 tests to Americans’ homes for free starting in January. It is not clear yet how many test kits people can ask for. Biden said residents will be able to request tests through a website, which has not been launched.

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The idea of the government building a website for test distribution worries Bethlendy, who is “expecting a failure,” given what he termed the government’s poor track record implementing new technology.

“As much as we like Obamacare, the vision was right, but the website was a mess,” he said. “And there are lots of examples, even during the pandemic, of states having different vaccine and testing websites set up that have been a complete failure.”

Earlier this year, vaccines were widely lauded as the solution to the pandemic, and they continue to be highly effective in preventing severe illness. But the arrival of Omicron has been a harsh wakeup call that the pandemic is far from over.

The highly mutated variant is able to evade some measure of immunity provided by the vaccine, leading to an uptick in breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.

Between Oct. 23 and Nov. 27, on average 5,328 fully vaccinated Massachusetts residents were testing positive for the virus every week. But since Omicron was first detected in the United States on Dec. 1, the number of breakthrough infections here has jumped to a weekly average of 14,230. (This number does not differentiate between those who are fully vaccinated and those who have also received a booster shot. Studies have shown the latter group can more effectively fend off Omicron.)

As a result, testing has once again emerged as a vital tool, and yet the nation continues to struggle to catch up.

Globe correspondent Andrew Brinker and Globe photographer Jessica Rinaldi contributed to this report.




Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.