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Big rapid test purchase in Massachusetts to aid schools, early ed

A rapid COVID-19 test.
State House News Service
A rapid COVID-19 test.

As omicron fuels record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday said his administration had purchased 26 million new rapid antigen tests that would be "prioritized" for K-12 schools and child care centers over the next three months to support programs designed to preserve in-person learning.

Baker has not wavered in his position that the state must do everything it can to avoid a return to remote learning for children that he described as damaging to their academic and social development.

Describing schools as "safe and healthy" despite rising case counts among students and staff, Baker signaled no willingness to budget on the rules prohibiting remote learning from counting towards the 180-day requirement for public schools, even as a city like Boston prepares for the possibility regardless of whether schools get credit for the learning time.

"I think the most important thing we need to do with these tests and with other tools is make it possible for people to continue to be in school," Baker said.

The new rapid tests will begin arriving in Massachusetts this week and come in addition to the 2.1 million tests Baker secured last month and distributed to select cities and towns and the 200,000 tests sent to schools and day care centers. The governor paired his testing announcement with new guidance from the Department of Public Health on when people should get tested for COVID-19 and assurances that antigen tests are accurate and can, in many cases, be used in lieu of PCR tests.

"Rapid tests are highly accurate at determining when an individual is at their most transmissible period of COVID-19 and they have many advantages to PCR testing, especially at this point in the pandemic," Baker said a State House press conference.

Baker made his announcement about rapid testing hours before he was scheduled to testify before the Legislature's Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management about his administration's response to the omicron surge. Many lawmakers in recent weeks have been calling on Baker to do more to slow the spread of the virus as infections have created workforce shortages and in some cases forced schools to close due to limited staffing.

"Everywhere I go, that's all I hear is we need more testing - in schools, hospitals & communities ...," Senate President Karen Spilka tweeted Tuesday morning, teasing the oversight hearing when she said she hoped to hear more from Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders on the topic.

While PCR tests have long been considered the gold standard for COVID-19 detection, appointments have been in short supply with many residents reporting having to wait hours in lines for walk-up tests or days to get an appointment. Baker said Massachusetts has as much testing capacity per capita "as you find anywhere in America," but he said increased supplies of rapid tests should help mitigate some of the demand issues.

The order for the new rapid antigen tests was placed with iHealth, the same California-based manufacturer that provided the 2.1 million tests purchased last month and distributed to select cities and towns. Shipments of the new tests are expected on a rolling basis from now through March depending on supply chain availability, and Baker said his administration would have more details on distribution plans soon.

"We want to ensure that we have sufficient rapid antigen tests for both schools through the school semester through June, as well as for early education and care," said Sudders, who joined Baker at the morning press conference.

Many schools districts, officials said, participate in state organized pool-testing programs, or the test-and-stay program, which allows students and teachers exposed to COVID-19 to remain in the classroom as long as they rapid test negative. Baker said these programs "probably saved" 450,000 in-person school days, and the Department of Early Education and Care said last week they are looking to expand the test-and-stay program to child care centers.

The new guidance from DPH recommends that people get tested if they are symptomatic or if they have been a confirmed close contact to someone with COVID-19. Close contacts are advised to get tested five days after exposure, and Baker said that rapid tests "in most situations" are a good alternative to PCR tests.

The department also said that exposed individuals are not advised to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated and have either received their booster or are not yet eligible, or if they've had COVID-19 within the previous 90 days.

With some testing demand attributed to residents needing PCR tests to return to work or school after isolation, Baker said DPH doesn't recommend requiring a test after isolation, but if a business or school makes that decision they are advised against requiring a PCR test.

Further, the DPH now advises that a positive COVID-19 rapid antigen test does not need to be confirmed with a PCR test, which could impact the state's collection of new case data because at-home tests are not reported to the state.

Anyone with symptoms who tests negative with a rapid antigen test should isolate and either repeat an antigen test or get a PCR tests within 24 to 48 hours if symptoms persist, according to DPH.

The governor also said he was activating an additional 500 members of the National Guard to assist with staffing challenges at hospitals around the state, adding to the 500 Guard members already called up to assist.

"There's no question at this point in time that staffing remains an enormous challenge for many of these providers. This activation will alleviate some of the pressure in these places," Baker said.

The most recent data published by DPH showed that 92% of the 8,734 inpatient medical and surgical beds statewide were occupied, as well as 85% of the 1,259 intensive care unit beds.

The state reported on Monday that 2,923 patients were currently hospitalized for COVID-19, including 1,293 fully vaccinated individuals, though the state by the end of the week will begin differentiating between patients admitted because of COVID-19 and those who test positive but have been hospitalized for another health condition.

"Vaccines and boosters work," Baker said. "The data on this is unassailable at this point in time. They've been a game changer with respect to this pandemic."

Updated: January 11, 2022 at 12:47 PM EST
This story has been updated.
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