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Mass. to get 26 million rapid COVID tests, issues new guidance on when to get tested

Governor Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that the state will get 26 million rapid antigen COVID-19 tests over the next three months.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that Massachusetts has secured an order for 26 million rapid antigen COVID-19 tests over the next three months, and the state issued new guidance on when residents should seek tests for the virus.

The state’s actions follow reports about the scarcity of rapid tests in recent weeks and confusion among some residents on when they should get tested amid surging cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Authorities on Tuesday reported 17,802 new confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts and said 2,970 patients with COVID-19 were in the hospital.

Also, the state reported 82,466 more COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated people since last week, a sharp jump in so-called breakthrough cases that brings the total since the beginning of the vaccination campaign to 262,060 cases, or 5.1 percent of all fully vaccinated people.

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Baker said he expects shipments from the test-kit contractor to begin arriving this week and to continue through January, February, and March. Details on how the tests would be distributed would be announced soon, he said.

He said “key priorities” for test distribution will be K-12 schools and childcare facilities. Across the state, school districts are struggling to remain open safely amid high numbers of virus-related staff absences. Mayor Michelle Wu has said Boston schools eventually may turn to remote learning — even without state approval.

Last month, the state distributed 2.1 million free at-home COVID-19 tests in an ambitious effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus as the winter surge loomed. The tests went to 102 communities with the highest percentage of families living below the poverty level.

“We will play this one a little bit based on how the supply arrives, as it gets distributed,” Baker said of the latest test-kit shipments. “But the idea that we would like to be able to make them available more broadly if we can, that’s certainly on our radar.”

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Baker also reiterated his administration’s belief that children should be in school for in-person learning, despite calls from city officials in Boston for flexibility with remote learning amid the Omicron-fueled surge of the virus.

Public health experts, he said, are in broad agreement that “school is not only safe, it’s healthy” for children.

Separately, the governor announced that he plans to activate an additional 500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to support the state’s healthcare system. Those members are on top of the 500 the state activated earlier this month.

With its new guidelines on testing, Massachusetts aligned the state with measures recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state is recommending that residents get a COVID test when they’re experiencing symptoms of the virus or five days after close contact with someone who has tested positive.

The CDC’s measures do not recommend a negative COVID test to end the isolation period after having the virus, including in child-care and K-12 settings, the state noted.

It is recommended, but not required, that people who have been exposed to the virus get tested for COVID-19 five days after they were exposed, the state Department of Public Health said.

According to the CDC, the day you were exposed is considered “Day Zero” of your five-day quarantine, and “Day One″ is the first full day after you last had contact with someone infected with COVID. The same goes for those in isolation — “Day One″ is the first full day after symptoms have developed or your test specimen was collected, according to the CDC.

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People who were exposed to the virus do not need to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated and not yet eligible for a booster shot, if they are fully vaccinated and have received a booster dose, or if it has been fewer than 90 days since they tested positive.

The DPH said that rapid antigen tests, which are the self-administered tests that can be purchased at pharmacies, are in most cases an acceptable alternative to PCR tests, which are clinically administered at in-person sites.

People can take a rapid, at-home test instead of a PCR test in situations that include testing to exit isolation or quarantine or to receive treatments like monoclonal antibodies or antiviral medication if the infected person is at high risk for severe outcomes due to COVID.

Additionally, under the new state guidance, if a person tests positive with a rapid antigen test, they don’t need to confirm their diagnosis with a PCR test.

During an oversight hearing before the Legislature’s Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, Baker said the rapid antigen tests were, in some ways, a more valuable tool than PCR tests.

“I do think some folks who are requiring PCR tests could get away from that,” Baker said. “I would actually argue that rapid tests are a better way of measuring when someone’s over COVID than a PCR test is.”

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The department also said that those with COVID symptoms who test negative with a rapid antigen test should isolate and either test again with an at-home test or get a PCR test within one or two days if they still have symptoms.

Employers, schools, and child-care providers shouldn’t require a test as a condition of returning to work, school, or child care, the department said.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.