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Mass. Needs More Coronavirus Testing Now, Public Health Experts Say

Massachusetts is playing catch-up in testing people for the coronavirus, with public health experts saying ongoing snafus are harming the state’s ability to prepare for and prevent the spread of the disease.

In recent days, commercial labs have begun performing testing and drive-through testing centers have popped up. Health officials relaxed policies on who could get tested.

More than 1,300 people have been tested as of Tuesday, up from 200 last week.

Public health experts say these are positive steps, but that the state needs to move with even more urgency and loosen restrictions further on who gets tested.

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health, says even people with questionable or mild symptoms should be checked.

“We need to test at least a thousand people a day and probably more,”  Horsburgh said. “We have to test people at low-risk, otherwise we’re finding only obvious cases and not catching those who may unknowingly spread the disease. Without the right testing, we’re never going to get on top of this.”

State officials announced Tuesday that private companies will help ramp up testing. The Broad Institute in Cambridge expects to run up to 1,000 tests a day by next week.

“Expanding test capacity is critical,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Tuesday.

The state has begun publishing daily testing numbers, reversing earlier plans to only provide updated numbers once a week. As of Tuesday, the state public health lab has conducted 1,367 tests, a number that includes people who have been tested more than once. Officials say that the state lab can do up to 400 tests a day.

“We need to test at least a thousand people a day and probably more ... Without the right testing, we’re never going to get on top of this.”

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health

An additional 384 tests have been done by commercial labs brought online in the past week.

“We are moving as quickly as we can, and we are doing data integration with our lab partners to make sure that this testing and testing information is compatible with the data that we have at the State Department of Public Health,” Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said.

One of the commercial labs is Quest Diagnostics. The company says it is using its lab-developed test, which was introduced last week. The test is still awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval but meets CDC guidelines.

Currently, its test results are processed at Quest facilities in California and Virginia, with results taking three to four days to process. The company says it is planning to start processing results at its Marlborough lab on Thursday.

Doctors at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester say they hope that local processing of tests will help with their backlog and speed up testing.

Dr. Richard Ellison, epidemiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, says they’re still waiting for results on about 75% of the 300 COVID-19 tests done at the hospital in the past week.

Testing at UMass is restricted to people in the hospital, health care workers, first responders, vulnerable patients (such as those on dialysis) and those known to have been exposed to the virus.

“The demand far exceeds capacity,” Ellison said. “We’re hoping that once Quest is operating locally that will speed things up."

Ellison said the lack of basic equipment is also causing backlogs. Many manufacturers usually don’t have large stocks of simple test swabs and vials in March, he said, because it's typically the end of flu season. Shortages of those simple materials mean doctors carefully consider who gets tested.

“UMass and many other hospitals are scrambling to get a large supply of swabs and vials,” Ellison said. “Manufacturing of these is typically slow this time of year."

UMass is also looking into using its medical school research facilities to do clinical testing. But officials did not know how quickly that could happen.

All week Massachusetts has been revising its testing. When Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency because of COVID-19, state officials acknowledged that there were too few tests and said that the federal government was largely to blame.

At the time, the state was using even stricter guidelines than CDC standards for testing, requiring those with symptoms to see a doctor and consult with a state Department of Public Health epidemiologist before a test could be administered.

The CDC relaxed its rules last week, and the state eliminated the requirement for DPH approval. Massachusetts health officials also moved to automate some testing and allow a one step, rather than two step, test process.

Federal officials said Tuesday that about 60,000 people have been tested nationwide. They are also promising to improve efforts to expand testing across the country .

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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