Why was Wellesley COVID-19 test site dropped?

Town’s story about social distancing doesn’t add up

WHEN CVS ROLLED OUT a nationwide COVID-19 testing program last week, its Wellesley store on Linden Street was on the list of 10 participating Massachusetts outlets. Hours later the store was off the list.

What happened in those few hours is the focus of some speculation in the wealthy suburb west of Boston.

The official story is that the town and CVS jointly decided to cancel the testing initiative because of the pharmacy store’s location. “Town officials were concerned about the density of this specific location as it’s in Wellesley’s main shopping plaza, which includes a large Roche Bros. and many restaurants,” said Stephanie Hawkinson, the town’s communications manager, in an email. “The parking lot is very crowded and social distancing – even outdoors – is very difficult. We learned about the CVS plan from residents; as far as I know, CVS did not consult with our Health Department prior to announcing its list of sites.”

CVS apparently didn’t think advance notice was needed, in part because of the way the COVID-19 tests were going to be conducted.

Earlier in the pandemic, CVS opened large-scale rapid-testing sites in Shrewsbury and Lowell that featured big white tents in parking lots where cars would pull up and tests would be administered by medical staff dressed in protective gear. Those tests involved long swabs that needed to be carefully threaded inside the patient’s nostril and down the throat.

The new testing sites announced last week by CVS – and by Gov. Charlie Baker, who was unveiling a dramatic ramp-up in testing statewide – are very different. After making an appointment and verifying eligibility for the test online, patients drive up to the pharmacy window, take a test kit from the pharmacist, and swab their own nose in their car. (The new swabs are much shorter and only have to be inserted into the nose, not down the throat.)

The patient then puts the swab in its transport container, returns the container to the testing kit, and places the testing kit in a larger container outside the store. The kit is sent off for testing and results come back in three days. CVS can do a maximum of 50 tests a day.

“We recognize that increasing the frequency and efficiency of testing are critical to preventing spread of the virus and contributing to a responsible reopening of our economy,” CVS spokesman Joe Goode said in a statement. “Our new approach has the capacity to conduct five drive-thru tests per hour, and is akin to picking up prescription medication at one of our drive-thru windows. It’s safe for both patients and health care professionals and allows us to bring testing closer to the community.”

In other words, no big traffic jams and no social distancing needed.

Yet Hawkinson, the Wellesley official, said traffic was a concern. “The biggest concern was bringing more cars into an area which is already quite crowded,” she said. “In addition, our public health officials were slightly worried about the temptation for someone who was getting tested to consider going to Roche Bros. for supplies and possibly spreading the virus.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Not everyone buys that explanation. At The Swellesley Report, a website and Facebook page where the tagline is “more than you really want to know about Wellesley, Mass.,” a story on the disappearance of the Linden Street test site prompted some consternation.

“Very disappointed in the town,” said Mary Jameson. “Testing sites are needed and this is a clear ‘not in my backyard,’” she said.

Patrick Rafter was also disappointed, writing, “How embarrassing for those of us who live in Wellesley, who recognize the COVID threat, and who are doing our part to fight the pandemic!”