State: Massachusetts Has Tested More Than 200 People For Coronavirus

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP)
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP)

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says more than 200 people have been tested for coronavirus so far, and currently has the capacity to test up to 5,000.

Despite the state of emergency in Massachusetts because of the coronavirus, testing for the virus is not widespread. Some experts say this could worsen the spread of the virus.

Some health care providers are expressing concerns that a lack of testing could harm efforts to control the virus. Dr. Monique Aurora Tello posted on Facebook Wednesday that she saw eight people with coronavirus symptoms at Massachusetts General Hospital and was not able to test them.

"Testing pending for some but the State wouldn't let us test them all," she wrote on Facebook. "Not enough tests!"

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a news conference Thursday, said the state has the capacity to test 5,000 people. Currently, the state lab is the only one with the authority to run tests. He said that's inadequate.

"We need the federal government the CDC and the FDA, in particular, to give hospitals and testing facilities here in Massachusetts — that have the capacity to test — to the material and then the approval they need to actually begin to test themselves," he said.

A DPH spokesperson on Wednesday said more than 200 people have been tested so far. The agency did not return requests for updated testing numbers on Thursday.

On Tuesday, DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel said the state had "adequate supplies and staffing." During that news conference, she said the state had tested 400 people; it actually had tested 400 specimens, as most people require two tests.

As of Thursday, the state reported 108 total coronavirus cases; six are confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the rest are presumed positive.

Many experts say it's not just Massachusetts where testing appears to be limited. They say South Korea is testing 700 times more people than the United States.

"We are badly underreporting the numbers," Marc Lipsitch, epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said during a Massachusetts General Hospital online meeting on Thursday. "It's hard to predict or plan when we know we aren't getting enough numbers through testing."

Many patients already suspect this. Amy Proal, a microbiologist who works for a local nonprofit, told WBUR's Radio Boston this week that she is self-quarantining in Boston. She said she and her boyfriend tried to get tested because they had symptoms such as a severe cough, lung pain and shortness of breath. She said her boyfriend called his physician, and a nurse told him to come to the doctor's office. The doctor administered a rapid flu test and a CT scan and gave him a prescription for an inhaler.

He was not tested for coronavirus.

"I don't think the state can test," Proal said. "I don't think they have the capacity to."

So who is getting tested?

The DPH says it follows testing protocols from the CDC. Its criteria includes testing those who traveled to some international locations and those who have had contact with individuals known to have the virus.

The state recommends that if a Massachusetts healthcare provider suspects COVID-19, they first call a DPH epidemiology line to determine if the patient meets the criteria for testing. The State Public Health Lab and the CDC are currently the only places where testing of Massachusetts samples is being done. If testing is done, it involves two swabs in the nose and mouth. The state arranges transport for the samples to the public health lab and says most results are available in 24 hours.

Several local academic and teaching hospital labs are working on providing more tests. Massachusetts General Hospital says it should know soon whether it will be able to conduct its own testing. Brigham and Women's Hospital is also working on a test.

This article was originally published on March 12, 2020.

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Deborah Becker 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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