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COVID-19 Testing Crunch In Western Massachusetts Leads To Long Waits

RN Alyssa Anderson administers a COVID-19 test at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford in March 2020.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public / NENC
RN Alyssa Anderson administers a COVID-19 test at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford in March 2020.

With virus rates rising across the state and the holidays looming, western Massachusetts residents who want to get a COVID test are often waiting in hours-long lines, if they can get one at all.

In the last few weeks, Amherst state Representative Mindy Domb has been hearing constantly from constituents who can’t get timely tests for COVID-19.

“It feels in some ways like we're back in the spring when we really should be way ahead of that,” she said.

Domb points out that, early in the pandemic, the problem was a shortage of testing supplies. But now the problem seems to be a surge in demand as cases rise across the state and country.

“We haven't anticipated a greater demand to make sure that the supply exceeds the demand,” she said.

Domb is among several western Massachusetts legislators asking the state health department for more free, state-sponsored testing sites — part of a program called “Stop the Spread.”

There are only five "Stop the Spread" sites in western Massachusetts — all in Hampden County, including two in Holyoke and three in Springfield. Domb wants at least one site in Hampshire County, which would also be more convenient for many residents of Franklin and Berkshire counties.

While initially the state prioritized places hit hardest by COVID, such as Holyoke and Springfield, Domb said a purely targeted approach no longer makes sense.

“The pandemic has sort of changed now because the surge is happening across the whole state,” Domb said, “and people are interested in finding out what their status is so that they can protect their loved ones and their community.”

Many people outside Hampden County are using the sites in Holyoke and Springfield, making the lines longer for everyone.

Carolyn Sailer of Northampton sat in line in her car for hours at the state testing site at Holyoke Community College.

“We went on a Saturday morning and the testing site opens at 7 and we arrived at 7:30 and we were tested at 10:30,” she said.

Sailer and her partner didn’t feel sick; they just wanted to make sure they were free from infection before their daughter came home from college.

“And then I think about people who don't feel well, who are waiting for that amount of time to get a test. That's just terrible,” Sailer said. “We should have so much more testing. To my mind, testing should be available any time somebody wants it.”

In a press conference this week, Governor Charlie Baker was asked about the long lines for testing. He said he suspects demand is up because people are planning to gather with family for Thanksgiving, against public health advice. He said that’s not what the "Stop the Spread" program was designed for.

“We have always said that if you have a close contact or you think you might be positive or you're concerned about your situation and circumstance, go get a test, which is why we set these free sites up,” Baker said.

He did not address whether there is a need for more state-sponsored testing sites, which, according to the COVID Command Center, have done half a million tests so far.

Baker did point out there are several hundred private testing sites at pharmacies and medical offices.

“If you have insurance, which the vast majority of people in Massachusetts do, those sites are open and available to people,” he said.

But those are not always easy to access either. A recent search on the CVS website showed that many people without symptoms don’t qualify for a test there, and for those who do, there were no appointments available within 30 miles of Springfield.

Walgreens is another pharmacy with testing sites, but the closest one to western Massachusetts is in Worcester.

Ace Tayloe, a college instructor, has gone several times to the CVS in Northampton after what she considers high-risk activities.

“One time I was working at a polling station and wanted to get a test after that,” she said. “I live in a household with four other adults, one of whom is immunocompromised.”

Tayloe said the drive-thru waits are taking longer and so is the turnaround time for results.

“In the summer, we would get tests and would receive an answer within two days,” she said. “Now we're lucky to get them after three or four days.”

Tayloe also wants more walk-up testing sites. Two of her roommates don’t drive.

“In order for them to get tested, I had to drive them to the testing location and basically have the swab handed past me,” Tayloe said.

Domb said, if the state doesn’t add more testing sites, legislators could pass a law requiring them — but she’d rather rely on the state’s public health experts.

She also hopes people understand that mask-wearing and avoiding social gatherings remain critical for stopping the spread, with or without more testing.

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