With cases of COVID-19 on a slight upswing across Massachusetts and state officials trying to get a clearer picture of coronavirus activity in the state, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that his administration is making free, widespread testing available in eight more communities showing concerning signs.
Free testing will be made available to anyone in Agawam, Brockton, Methuen, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, Taunton and Worcester regardless of symptoms, the governor said.
The eight communities were selected because cases and positive test rates far exceed the statewide average there, and the volume of testing being conducted has declined significantly over recent months, he said.
"Together, these eight new communities make up approximately 10% of the Massachusetts population but constitute about 15% of the commonwealth's positive tests in the past week," Baker said during his Monday press conference. "The statewide positive test rate over the past week, as I said before, is about 1.9% for the past seven days, but in these eight towns the positive test rate was 2.3%. The number of tests conducted in these communities has also declined by over 20% since the end of April."
At the beginning of the month, Baker rolled out a testing initiative that runs through mid-August in Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, and New Bedford — eight communities where the prevalence of COVID-19 exceeded what was occurring elsewhere in the state.
In the first week since additional testing was made available in those communities earlier this month, the number of tests conducted rose by 48%, compared to a 24% statewide increase that same week, the governor said. Based on results from about 17,000 of the 19,000 people who have been tested in those eight communities, Baker said the positive test rate there is about 1.8%.
The expansion to eight new communities, the governor said, will provide a better picture of coronavirus hotspots around Massachusetts and could be a preview of what's to come as the state continues to try to ramp up its testing capabilities. Testing information is available at www.mass.gov/stopthespread.
"We're increasing our testing footprint to better understand exactly where the virus exists, who has it, and how we can follow up through our tracing program and other initiatives. With more testing and tracing, we can obviously identify more transmission, particularly for asymptomatic populations, and continue to contain the spread of COVID," Baker said. He added, "As we prepare for the fall and ramp up stricter travel restrictions, more testing will be a pillar of the state's COVID-19 prevention strategy. We'll continue to bring every resource we have to bear and are grateful to our health care community and our frontline workers for their tireless efforts to contain and fight the virus."
The Department of Public Health confirmed 210 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and 273 more cases on Sunday, along with the announcement of 31 recent COVID-19 deaths between the two days. The number of daily new cases, which had generally settled at fewer than 200 a day earlier in the month, has been above 200 each of the last four days.
Baker acknowledged Monday that the positive test rate was on the rise, but he said the data he's seen indicates that new cases typically have more to do with "clusters" of transmission — like an outbreak at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield that started with an employee "who went to a hotspot state, came back and was lax with respect to wearing a mask," Baker said — than with the state's economic reopening.
"We're closely analyzing the data for trends, but right now we are aware of some small clusters that are associated with gatherings," he said.
On Sunday night, the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society tweeted that he was becoming concerned with the state's publicly-reported COVID-19 data and suggested that Massachusetts should think about stepping back to Phase 2 of the reopening plan, which would mean re-closing gyms, movie theaters, casinos and museums.
"Last four days in #Massachusetts had #COVID19 new positive tests over 200. Last time that happened? Mid-June - on the way down," Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, tweeted Sunday night. "The data is early, but it looks like we are on the way back up. We should consider backing down a phase. #wearamask."
Asked Monday about Rosman's comments, the governor said he thinks the clusters of new cases have more to do with people not following directions — to wear a mask or face covering, to keep at least six feet of distance from others, to wash their hands often, and more — than with people who are following guidelines to reopen their business or to patronize a reopened business.
"I think at this point in time the most important thing we need to do is continue to do the things that got us here in the first place. When we look at what the clusters are that have been created so far, many of them are the result of people simply not doing the things we've been telling everybody to do, which has a lot less to do with the nature of what's opened or what's not opened," Baker said. "I think certainly the public health data is going to drive our decision making. But so far, most of the data we've seen about where the clusters have come from have had a lot more to do with people just sort of letting down their guard a bit than anything else."