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COVID testing shortage leads to long lines across greater Boston

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COVID-19 testing materials at a Boston testing station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
COVID-19 testing materials at a Boston testing station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Outside the Bowdoin Street Health Center in Dorchester, the line for COVID-19 testing flowed down the street, turned the corner and then wrapped around the other side of the block.

With COVID cases hitting new records in Massachusetts, it seems like everyone is trying to get tested. And testing providers are struggling to keep up.

Dozens of people waited in line for hours at Bowdoin Street, for instance, Thursday morning.

Linda Roberts, who was near the back of the line, said it was the second place she went to just that day trying to find a test. The Boston resident said she was turned away from another clinic in the neighborhood earlier that morning.

Roberts said she felt fine, but wanted to make sure she wasn’t infected after celebrating Christmas with her relatives.

She summed up her feelings about the process in one word: "frustrated."

Roberts has plenty of company — not only in Dorchester, but across the region. Every day, there are new reports and images of people stuck in testing lines for hours. Many give up or are turned away.

Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the situation at a news conference Thursday in Cambridge.

"People are going to have to be patient on this one," he said.

Baker said he hopes a new program to let communities buy home test kits at a steep discount and distribute them to residents will help.

"I do think as cities and towns start ordering, we're talking millions and millions of tests that are now available to cities and towns as those tests start to land and cities and towns start to distribute them," he said. "They should help take some of the pressure off of those testing sites."

Separately, Boston announced plans on Thursday to open several new testing sites in January. And Cambridge promised to expand its free testing program to seven days a week, up from five, starting on Jan. 3.

In the meantime, many existing centers are struggling to keep up. That's especially true around the holidays, when many testing centers have limited hours and many residents are urgently trying to get tested before or after visiting family.

Demand has soared in recent days, leading to longer wait times, according to Dr. Charles Anderson, head of the Dimock Center in Roxbury. He said people used to be able find appointments within one to two days. Now there's currently a two-week wait.

Anderson said small health centers like his are trying to shift workers around to meet demand. But if the center adds additional testing appointments, it diverts staff from its other key departments, like its diabetes clinic.

"It's that balloon concept, right?" Anderson said. "You pull on a balloon on one side – it comes out another side."

To expand, testing centers need help from both the state and federal government to expand, he said. That means more staff, more testing supplies, and more capacity at the laboratories that actually analyze the samples collected at local clinics.

In the meantime, countless people are stuck in queues.

On Thursday, George Martins of Brockton spent two hours waiting in line on Bowdoin Street. And that was after he stopped by the clinic earlier in the week, only to give up.

"There was a huge line, going all the way back, so I said no," he said. "So I came here today, hoping it would be better."

This time, Martins decided to stick it out.  Finally, Martins heard his name and slipped inside a white tent to get tested.

Linda Roberts, who was near the back of the line, eventually made it to the front as well. She said she waited for two hours, in the rain.

Now she’s waiting again. This time, for the results.

This segment aired on December 31, 2021.


Walter Wuthmann General Assignment Reporter
Walter Wuthmann is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.



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