Lawmakers lean in to get virus testing at Pittsfield CVS

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PITTSFIELD — "Once again," the lawmakers' lament to Boston said, "the Berkshires get ignored, even when it comes to testing."

This Friday, pleas to expand the availability of testing for the coronavirus will bear fruit when the drugstore chain CVS debuts self-administered swabs at its West Street location. It will be the first alternative to public testing administered by Berkshire Health Systems. The closest CVS location offering tests has been West Springfield.

While lawmakers and the city's health director applaud the expansion, they warn that until tests for the virus are widely available, Berkshire County's confirmed cases tally might be misleading. As of Wednesday, the county had at least 537 cases, according to the state Department of Public Health.

"We're a little concerned about the numbers here, to make sure they're real," said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.

Barrett and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, have been pushing the state DPH and other state officials to bring more testing to the region.

"Mainly to get our frontline people tested," Barrett said. "Our first responders. We're concerned about that."

But, wider testing also is needed, he and others say, to lift public confidence and to be sure to identify clusters of new infection.

"This is great news," said Gina Armstrong, Pittsfield's director of public health. "The more testing, the better, and then doing the contact tracing as quickly as we can."

Armstrong said she plans to study the CVS approach to testing, including its reliability.

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Meantime, testing for the virus continues at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and at facilities in North Adams and Great Barrington. The tests are available at a drive-thru location at BMC to people with a physician's referral.

Tests also are available there and at 10 Maple Ave. in Great Barrington and the North Adams Campus of BMC for people who will undergo surgical procedures. More testingPignatelli said he wrote to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito for help in getting more testing in place — and not ignoring the Berkshires.

"I think people have a false sense of security," Pignatelli said. Though the county had a population of 124,944 people in 2019, according to the Census Bureau, Berkshire Medical Center reports that it had conducted 7,474 tests as of Wednesday. Of those, 500 were positive and results are pending for 117.

"After 10 weeks, that's not a lot of people. It gives people a false hope that everything is good here in the Berkshires," Pignatelli said.

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Wider testing can help map the presence of the virus, particularly at a time when restrictions are being lifted and people are coming, more and more, into contact with one another."That's going to be a problem if we don't have a good baseline," Pignatelli said.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the CVS testing can play a role in establishing that baseline. He noted that Gov. Charlie Baker has set a goal of testing 45,000 people a day in July and 75,000 a day by the end of the year. So far, the state has tested about 545,500 people; it is testing about 10,000 or fewer people most days.

"We're going to need an all-hands-on-deck approach," Hinds said of that plan.

Testing is crucial in enabling health care workers to detect outbreaks, particularly in places like congregate housing, Hinds said. But, given the high cost of testing, it is likely to be part of a group of solutions that includes contact tracing, including by employers, and embracing of existing policies on social distancing and use of masks.

Hinds served as a Senate observer on the proceedings of the governor's reopening advisory board — a role that he said helped him appreciate the nuances of testing.Getting CVS testAll tests at the CVS locations are done through appointment by signing up online and are only available to people age 18 or older. The actual tests are administered through a nasal swab by the customer, not a CVS employee.

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The first question that comes up online is whether you have a doctor's referral.

But, that isn't a make-or-break matter. Even if the applicant selects "no," the system will continue to process a request for an appointment.

People are asked to detail their medical histories — including the existence of conditions that are associated with increased risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"Test supplies are extremely limited. Help those who need testing the most by answering truthfully," the site says.

The system also asks whether the person seeking a test is a health care worker, first responder or law enforcement officer. It also asks if the person lives in a nursing home or long-term care facility or works or lives in a treatment facility or group home.

Those locations have become priorities for testing.

CVS also appears to give preference to people who are caregivers for someone older than 60 or a person with a weakened immune system. The site notes that "details will be confirmed on site at your visit."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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