Free COVID-19 tests roll out. Why are they not offered in Western Massachusetts?

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NORTH ADAMS — Massachusetts has launched free COVID-19 testing for eight hard-hit communities in the eastern part of the state.

While cases are lower in Western Massachusetts, some say the region needs more testing access, too.

Gov. Charlie Baker suggested that he would add free testing if cases rose in Western Massachusetts, but waiting until then would be too late, said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow. Some legislators and public health advocates have backed Lesser's calls for expanded testing access as a prevention strategy.

"The idea that we would wait for it to turn into a crisis before we would put the resources in place is simply not acceptable," Lesser said. "The whole point is to prevent the outbreak, and the way you prevent the outbreak is to stop the outbreak as soon as possible."

Baker said the purpose of the program is to reduce COVID-19 spread in places with high infection rates and low testing rates, and the eight sites were chosen based on data. In those eight municipalities, many of which are low-income communities, people can get tested without symptoms or referrals, which typically are required.

Lesser said he "wholeheartedly" supports the free testing initiative but wants Western Massachusetts included. Although Western Massachusetts already has testing sites, free and no-questions-asked testing would get the region closer to near-universal testing, Lesser said, which he sees as necessary for full reopening.

When reached for comment, Baker's press office referred The Eagle to his comments from a Wednesday news conference.

"If the folks in Western Massachusetts start to have issues, absolutely," Baker said when asked if he planned to add free testing in the western part of the state.

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"That comment is like `We're waiting for there to be three or four houses on fire before you send the firetruck,' rather than sending it when the smoke detector goes off," Lesser said.

Public health experts have said expanded testing is important to avoid new hot spots before cases rise.

"I think that that is somewhat shortsighted ... waiting for a region that is already a service-shortage area to have spikes in cases, and then try to test and do something about it," said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts. "I think he should go the other way to provide testing to avoid the spike.

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If the state is providing resources for free testing, Western Massachusetts deserves help, Collins said.

"If you want to prevent the spread of something, that testing should be made available so that people can make the best choices," Collins said.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he, too, sees flaws in the state's approach.

"I would love to hear the answer for why we cannot even achieve regional equity during a time of a pandemic for critical testing infrastructure," Hinds said.

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'Most vulnerable'

Dr. David Hamer, a Boston Medical Center physician and professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, said he is mindful of cost, which makes it understandable to prioritize places with high infection rates. But, anticipating future spikes requires broad-based testing in high-risk areas for a second surge, he said.

"We're really afraid that there's going to be a resurgence of it, and we need to be ready with sufficient testing and access to testing, especially in places with less ease of access to health care," Hamer said. " If there's not testing in place, when it comes, they're not going to be ready.

"The most vulnerable are people in nursing homes," he said. "You want to catch those early, before there's rapid-fire spread in a nursing home."

Western Massachusetts has high-risk demographics, Lesser said, citing high numbers of older residents in Berkshire County, and high diabetes and asthma rates in places like Springfield. The Holyoke Soldiers' Home and the Leavitt Family Jewish Home have had some of the worst outbreaks in the state, he added, and racial disparities have contributed to a high fatality rate in diverse Hampden County.

"Having a mindset, `Oh, we have a region of the state that we know is lower-income, that we know has higher risk factors, that we know had some of the biggest outbreaks at first, but we're going to wait until there are more cases,' that's unacceptable," Lesser said. "The idea that a low-income person or an elderly person in North Adams or Springfield is supposed to now drive 100 miles to Marlborough to get this done is totally unrealistic and reflects a mindset that the state exists only east of I-495."

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.


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