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Some Western Massachusetts Legislators Want National Guard To Staff More Testing Sites

In this file photo, Tapestry Health employees provide free COVID-19 testing in Springfield and Agawam, Massachusetts.
Douglas Hook
MassLive / MassLive.com/photos
In this file photo, Tapestry Health employees provide free COVID-19 testing in Springfield and Agawam, Massachusetts.

State legislators in western Massachusetts are turning up the pressure for more COVID-19 testing, but they don’t all necessarily agree on how that should be done.

State Representative Mindy Domb of Amherst has long been asking for more COVID testing in western Massachusetts, where the only state-sponsored sites are in Hampden County.

Now Domb wants Governor Charlie Baker to create pop-up testing sites in every county in the state, including all four western counties. And she wants him to deploy the Massachusetts National Guard to staff them.

"I think my tipping point was hearing reports from constituents that they waited like two to three hours to get tested or they had gone down to the site and they were turned away because the site was closed because of the capacity," Domb said.

Before Thanksgiving, Domb visited the testing site at Holyoke Community College, where only four people were doing all the work.

Domb said the National Guard would be one way to increase testing staff across the state, especially when hospitals and healthcare workers are stretched so thin. She pointed out that the National Guard helped municipalities with emergency shelters back in March.

"I'm open to learning if there's another way to do it, but I don't know," Domb said. "I don't see [another] way for us to do it."

One person who tried to get tested at the Holyoke testing site is Lindsay Sabadosa, state representative from Northampton.

Sabadosa started feeling ill a few days earlier, so she waited for two hours in her car at the testing site until a staff person came out to say there were no more appointments.

"There were between maybe 50 and 70 cars behind us that were also turned away," she said.

Since Sabadosa had cold symptoms, her doctor eventually got her a test at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. She tested negative for COVID, but the experience underscored what she already felt.

"I think we are at this point of just utter desperation," Sabadosa said. "How many times can you ask for testing for an area that doesn't have adequate access?"

Difficulty getting tested means more people may be unknowingly spreading the virus, she said.

However, unlike Domb, Sabadosa is not calling for the National Guard deployment, which she considers more of a temporary emergency response, better suited for field hospitals or nursing homes.

"Testing is something that needs to be steady. It needs to be consistent. It needs to be easily accessible and it needs to be located in more places throughout the state," Sabadosa said.

Sabadosa and other legislators have sent numerous letters to the state health department asking for more testing in western Massachusetts.

State Senator Jo Comerford of Northampton said she supports Domb's push to tap the National Guard for help.

In a press conference on Dec. 1, Governor Charlie Baker was asked about Domb’s proposal. He said he needs a better sense of the post-Thanksgiving testing demand.

"I would like to know if, in fact, this was driven by something other than the holiday before we make a big decision like bringing somebody like the guard into this," Baker said.

Domb said she’s glad Baker did not dismiss the National Guard suggestion out of hand and that he’s considering expanded testing.

Baker said the state’s priority is reconfiguring existing outdoor testing set-ups now that winter is setting in.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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