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With cases rising, demand jumps for COVID testing in western Massachusetts

Massachusetts in recent weeks has reported COVID-19 test positivity rates higher than anything seen since last January. At the same time, an increasing number of people are trying to get tested for the disease. 

Looking for a quick appointment for a COVID test can be frustrating, but some locations in western Massachusetts have plenty of opportunities to be screened.

Merridith O'Leary, the health director in Northampton, said two state-sponsored testing sites in nearby Holyoke have been handling demand.

"I've used them myself over the past couple of weeks, and I've heard anecdotally when I've been contact tracing that the people using the 'Stop the Spread' sites are not waiting in long lines, and ... the results are coming back fairly fast," O'Leary said.

O’Leary said testing capacity in Hampshire County is increasing. She said the company Curative is partnering with neighboring Easthampton to provide testing several days a week. O’Leary said she’s hoping to have a site open in Northampton the days Easthampton's isn’t open.

On its website Wednesday afternoon, Curative, which operates several other sites in the region, showed hundreds of available appointments in the coming days. A new location opened this week at the Holyoke Mall.

At UMass Amherst, where testing is available for students and staff, as well as the community at large, there also has been increased demand for COVID testing. The program provides take-home kits for people who are asymptomatic, but which could be used later if someone developed symptoms.

"Essentially 90% of the tests we process are unobserved," said Jeff Hescock, co-director of the Public Health Promotion Center at UMass Amherst. "So individuals can take a kit, a couple kits, at their convenience, take them home, they can have their loved ones take advantage of one of the tests and then drop it off at one of our kiosks. We encourage everyone to test as frequently as they like."

Baystate Health, which runs several hospitals in western Massachusetts, said the number of people looking to be screened for COVID has doubled since October. But Dr. Doug Salvador, chief quality officer at Baystate, said they can handle it.

"Testing is an important part of managing the pandemic, and we've worked since the beginning to increase our access to testing," Salvador said. "Things are a lot better now than they were in the early days, and we have capacity to do more."

But appointments are hard to come by at locations run by CVS, with many locations booked solid for the next few days. Another pharmacy chain, Walgreens, had more availability at some of its western Massachusetts sites.

The drive-up testing site at Springfield's Eastfield Mall, was very busy Wednesday, with wait times over more than an hour.

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