The Baker administration last week rolled out a color-coded system to gauge the risk of COVID-19 in each city and town and quickly tied those assessments to recommendations on whether schools should open with in-person learning, remote learning, or a hybrid model. But problems are surfacing.
Late Friday afternoon, the Department of Public Health disclosed that a commercial lab, which state officials did not identify, is under investigation and has voluntarily suspended all testing after state officials detected 130 false positives test results were reported.
The errors mean the city of Fall River is being recategorized from the red to yellow, moderate-risk category and Taunton is shifting from yellow to green.
DPH officials say the reporting issue occurred from July 30 to Aug. 1 and "resulted in a disproportionate number of false positive results being reported from that lab during that time."
"The lab ceased testing when the issue was identified and is under investigation," DPH spokeswoman Katheleen Conti said in a statement. "Test results conducted by the lab during this time are being verified by an independent lab, and based on results received to date, the Department has accordingly released updated case numbers and risk levels for the August 12 weekly public health report for Fall River and Taunton."
The number of positive COVID-19 test results affixed to other communities may also be updated, officials said. Any updates will be included in town-by-town data in next Wednesday's DPH report. Officials don't expect the changes to result in risk level changes for any other communities.
Impacts to overall case numbers for Massachusetts will be reflected in Saturday's daily report, officials said.
The news of false positive test reports came on the same day that school districts were required to file final plans for the approaching school year.
When Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday rolled out a new color-coded metric of COVID-19 risk levels in each Massachusetts community, he suggested the new labels would play a role in how cities and towns think about operations.
"If you're in a green or a white community, I can't imagine a good reason not to go back, whether it's full-time or some sort of a hybrid, because for all intents and purposes you meet all the benchmarks that are being used across the country and across New England to make decisions about whether it's safe to go back to school," Baker said, referring to the two colors assigned to lower risk levels.
The colors are assigned based on a municipality's COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 residents over two weeks, ranging from green for fewer than four to red for more than eight. Communities assigned a white or "unshaded" designation are those with small populations and fewer than five cases within the last 14 days.
In a memo last Wednesday, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley listed his department's "expectation" for which learning model communities should use, based on their assigned color, and said districts should also monitor local test positivity rates and whether cases are increasing or decreasing locally.
In "red" communities, the department expects schools to operate remotely. The expectation is hybrid for "yellow" communities, or remote if there are extenuating circumstances. Communities assigned green or white colors are expected to open schools on a full-time in person model, but could do hybrid under extenuating circumstances, according to the guidance.
The adjustments for Fall River shifted the city from 8.3 cases per 100,000 to 7.4 per 100,000. Taunton went from 6.5 cases per 100,000 to 3.2 per 100,000.