2 Western Mass. virus testing sites welcomed, but some say more needed in region

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, says that as travel resumes amid the coronavirus pandemic, a slight uptick in positive cases is being registered in the Berkshires. "It's time to make sure we don't see a stop in testing centers," Hinds said.

PITTSFIELD — Two Western Massachusetts sites have been added to a state initiative for no-cost COVID-19 testing.

Springfield and Agawam are among the eight additional communities included in the Stop the Spread program, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday. Observers in Western Massachusetts see it as a welcome development, but they reiterated their call for greater testing accessibility in the region before it experiences a surge in cases.

"Western Mass. is a large area, and as we know, many people in our region rely on public transportation, so we have to be really thoughtful about spreading out testing sites around our large geographic area," said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts. "For someone from Pittsfield to have to go to Agawam or Springfield, that is not an easy thing to do."

The state has registered a slight rise in coronavirus cases recently, with some of those spikes attributed to gatherings. Increases in travel and economic activity, as well as the reopening of schools, will make expanded testing access all the more important, lawmakers say.

"We are seeing a slight uptick in positive cases in the Berkshires as travel resumes," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. "It's time to make sure we don't see a stop in testing centers — they need to reach the Berkshires and all of Western Mass."

"This is a start, but this is nowhere near what's necessary to keep COVID-19 in check, especially as we enter the fall, and schools reopen and economic activity picks up," said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow. "You only need really one super spread or event to create an uncontrollable outbreak. The only real tool that we have besides social distancing and limiting economic activity is testing and isolating the positive cases."

The Stop the Spread program seeks to bolster testing in communities with high positive case counts and low testing rates. Yet, testing advocates say Western Massachusetts needs testing support before it's too late, particularly since the older population would be at greater risk if an outbreak did occur.

"It's not an explosive fire out here now, so let's get the tests here now and let's contain it," Collins said.

Ensuring a quick turnaround for testing results should be another priority, Hinds said. While some tests yield results within 24 to 48 hours, some take up to two weeks, Collins said.

Manufacturing testing equipment locally, at places like Universal Plastics in Holyoke, can be important to maintaining testing supplies, according to Lesser. Worsening spread in other states also places greater demand on the nation's testing resources.

"There's going to be a continued increase in demand for testing because the economy is reopening, so, more and more institutions are going to be doing testing," Lesser said. "That's leading to long delays, and the longer the delays are, the less effective the testing is."

Near-universal testing would be necessary for full reopening, Lesser added.

Baker last week issued an executive order to enforce quarantine and testing requirements for travelers, with a $500-per-day fine for those who don't comply. Effective on Saturday, visitors from all but eight states either would have to quarantine for 14 days or provide a negative test result that is no more than 72 hours old.

The order strengthens previous policy, Collins said, but in a tourist destination like the Berkshires, it will mean more testing support is needed.

"Particularly for the Berkshires, as a vacation destination, there should be accessible testing sites if people are coming from other states, going to those beautiful lakes and renting houses," Collins said. "That is a critical spot that shouldn't be ignored."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.