Baker prioritizes rapid tests, buys 26m more
Says supply will be distributed to schools, childcare
MASSACHUSETTS WILL GET 26 million rapid antigen tests over the next three months, which it will distribute primarily to K-12 schools and childcare facilities, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.
“Rapid tests are convenient and efficient, they can be completed at home with results in 15 minutes, and they are also accurate in detecting when someone is about to infect others,” Baker said at a State House press conference.
With long lines plaguing testing sites statewide, which offer PCR tests, the governor also said the Department of Public Health will issue new guidelines that decrease reliance on PCR tests.
“DPH doesn’t recommend that employers or schools or childcare providers require a test to return from isolation after having COVID,” Baker said.
But Baker said if an employer or school chooses to require a test, or if someone is seeking to leave quarantine after an exposure, “We believe antigen tests, which are enormously accurate especially on the back end of contagion, are a perfectly suitable solution.”
Until now, PCR tests have been the gold standard of COVID testing, since they are more sensitive than at-home rapid tests. At least one recent study, which is not yet peer-reviewed, found that rapid antigen test are not reliable in detecting the Omicron variant in the first few days of infection. This has been the case anecdotally. But rapid tests – which were nearly impossible to find for most of the pandemic and even now remain scarce – are increasingly being used as a tool to detect the virus before people gather. The rapid tests give quick results, compared to 24 to 72-hour waits for PCR test results, and avoid a trip to a PCR testing site, many of which are overwhelmed.
In the past, state officials said a rapid test should be confirmed by a PCR test, since rapid test results are not reported to the state and were seen as less reliable. The new guidelines published by DPH say positive rapid tests no longer need PCR confirmation – but someone may want to get a PCR or a second rapid test if they have a negative rapid test result but continue to have symptoms.
The new Department of Public Health guidelines will advise residents to get PCR tests only if they are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or if they are a confirmed close contact of someone who has COVID, five days after exposure.
Most Massachusetts schools already get rapid tests from the state. They are used to test students who feel sick while in school and to test close contacts as part of the state’s “test and stay” program, where a child exposed to COVID at school may remain in school as long as they are asymptomatic and take daily rapid tests for five days. Rapid tests can also be used as part of regular pooled testing, a form of surveillance testing where several samples are tested together, to rapid test each student who is part of a positive pool.
The administration has said it intends to expand the “test and stay” program from K-12 schools to early childhood centers in the coming weeks, which would require many more rapid tests.
Baker said Monday that the 26 million tests, obtained through a contract with iHealth Labs, will arrive on a rolling basis through March and are expected to be distributed through the existing testing programs, not any new distribution channel.
Baker, as he has in the past, criticized the US government for being “a laggard” compared to many European countries on approving and distributing rapid tests, which has led to continued scarcity of the tests in the US.
Baker also announced that he is activating another 500 members of the National Guard – on top of 500 he activated last month – to assist struggling hospitals and health care providers. Hospitals have been floundering under a surge of COVID and other patients, with staffing shortages due to staff falling ill or having to quarantine. Baker said there are now 700 fewer hospital beds available than last year, due to staffing problems. The state started collecting data Monday, which will become public later this week, on how many patients are in the hospital for COVID and how many are there for other ailments but tested positive for COVID.
“There’s no question at this point in time staffing remains an enormous challenge for many providers,” Baker said.Asked about comments by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu that Boston schools may turn to remote learning due to staffing shortages, even without state approval, Baker remained steadfast in his refrain that students need to be in school for educational and developmental reasons. “Everyone owes the kids of the Commonwealth 180 days of in-person learning,” Baker said.
Baker is expected to testify this afternoon before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management.