New COVID-19 testing goals laid out Thursday would make Massachusetts, one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, a global leader in screening for the contagious disease, Gov. Charlie Baker said.
Massachusetts, Baker said, has been one of the top four or five states "in every awful category you can think of." There were more than 80,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state as of Wednesday afternoon, and 5,315 deaths linked to the respiratory disease.
Testing is widely seen as a critical element of efforts to both control spread of the coronavirus and to safely reopen the economy in a way that gives workers and consumers confidence.
Baker outlined a new expanded testing strategy the state intends to submit to federal officials later this month, which he said was necessary to access funds allocated in relief legislation Congress passed in April.
The plan, he says, calls for stepping up testing capacity to hit 45,000 daily tests by the end of July and 75,000 daily by the end of December, with the goal of bringing the positive rate below 5%.
"If we reach the testing goals that we're seeking to achieve, we'll be the largest and highest tester on a per capita basis anywhere in the world, actually by a significant margin," Baker said. "And I think from where we sit, the most important thing we need to do with our testing strategy is to make sure we're testing in places where people have the biggest concerns."
The long-term plan, Baker said, involves expanded testing for people in "high-risk congregate settings" — like state hospitals, group homes, and correctional facilities — and for people who are symptomatic, close contacts of people with COVID-19, and those whose work puts them at high risk of infection.
It also calls for randomized testing for disease surveillance purposes and an increase in lab processing capacity, to prepare for a potential surge in testing this fall, he said.
Of the state's roughly 6.9 million residents, 410,032 have so far been tested for COVID-19.
Baker said the state has the lab capacity for about 30,000 tests per day; the most logged in a single day to date is the 15,652 performed on May 3.
For the last three days, fewer than 10,000 tests have been conducted daily. About 14% of the 8,536 tests recorded Wednesday were positive.
"We have capacity. What we need to do is create additional testing to fill the capacity that we have," Baker said.
Ten new drive-through testing sites at CVS locations across Massachusetts — in Charlton, Worcester, Raynham, Northampton, Bridgewater, Carver, West Springfield, Danvers, Westport and Wellesley — will help bolster the ability to test for COVID-19, Baker said.
At those sites, people who meet testing criteria and schedule appointments will drive up to the drive-through pharmacy window, where they will receive a self-swab kit and instructions for use. The tests will be sent to a lab for processing, with results available in two to three days, Baker said.
The state's long-term plan, Baker said, calls for faster turnaround times on test results and "will focus particularly on communities with low testing availability, hotspots where we're seeing high positive rates, and high density areas."
"Many pieces" of the plan will need federal approval, and meeting its goals will require support from the federal government, Baker said.
The governor said Massachusetts is not pursuing universal testing for every person and is instead opting for an "expanded but target approach" that is "both attainable and recommended by our medical experts."
"There's no path currently to achieving what many refer to as universal testing, which has its own limitations, and is frankly too far off to rely on for our reopening," he said.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Thursday published a list of criteria it said employers will be looking for in the Baker administration's economic reopening plan, which is set to be released Monday. One item on the Chamber's list is a statewide testing goal, along with "a coordinated state effort to communicate and provide widespread access to affordable testing for all residents."
"A statewide strategy should set a goal that a certain share of the population undergo a serology test and use those results to influence the ongoing reopening strategy," the Chamber said. "The state should also oversee communicating how, where, and when to get tests; detail the statewide capacity to manufacture, administer, and analyze tests; and remove legal or regulatory barriers to ramping up testing capacity."
Baker said testing is a "valuable tool" to fight the coronavirus as a phased-in economic reopening approaches, but it's not the only one in the arsenal.
Face coverings, social distancing, hygiene and disinfection, and flexible workplace policies that allow employees to stay home or work remotely if they test positive or have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 are also important parts of the effort, he said.
"I can't say this one enough — people need to wear face coverings and masks if they can't distance," Baker said. "And it's just as much about protecting you from somebody else as it is about protecting somebody else from you."
Baker said a "very significant portion" of the population that gets infected with COVID-19 will never develop symptoms but are still "completely contagious." He said evidence shows the likelihood of transmission "drops dramatically" if both people are wearing masks or face coverings.
Wearing masks "wasn't necessarily something people were talking much about when this all got started," but since more research has been done, it has become "one of the most important things people can do," Baker said.
The governor on May 1, more than six weeks into the COVID-19 state of emergency, announced he was ordering people age 3 and over to wear face masks when they are out in public in places where social distancing may not be possible.
Following guidance and protocols around practices like mask-wearing will be key to a successful reopening, Baker said.
"People need to understand how important what they do, as individuals and as organizations, is going to be to the success of the reopening as we go forward," he said.