Eight Massachusetts communities targeted for COVID-19 testing blitz

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS/WWLP) – Across Massachusetts, the fight to control the spread of the coronavirus is one that Governor Charlie Baker believes the state is winning. But in some pockets, the disease’s spread has remained stubbornly challenging to control.

The Baker administration on Wednesday rolled out a new summer testing initiative targeting eight hotspots from Lawrence to Fall River where cases and positive test rates far exceed the statewide average, and where the volume of testing being done has declined significantly over the past two months.

Baker remains bullish on the state’s ability to slowly reopen its economy and continue to control the spread of the coronavirus, but he said testing will remain a “critical tool in the months ahead” as Massachusetts thinks about allowing more businesses to open and reopening schools in the fall.

The new testing initiative dubbed “Stop the Spread” will launch on Friday and run through Aug. 14 to make testing available for people with or without symptoms in hotspots were the prevalence of COVID-19 exceeds what is occurring elsewhere in the state.

The increased testing will be available at new brick-and-mortar sites, as well as in mobile testing vans that will be deployed to Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, and New Bedford.

“The goal of this initiative is to provide widespread asymptomatic testing in an easy to access location within these communities. Increased testing within these communities will help to identify new cases of COVID-19 and help stop community transmission,” Baker said.

The governor did not rule out expanding the initiative to other communities, or shifting resources as dictated by the public health data.

The eight communities were selected based on elevated cases in those cities, higher rates over spread over the past two weeks, high positive test rates over the past two weeks and declining test volume since the end of April.

Residents of the eight communities represent 9 percent of the state’s population, but account for 27 percent of the positive cases detected over the past two weeks, Baker said during an afternoon briefing at the State House. The positive test rate of 8 percent in those cities also far exceeds the statewide rate of 1.9 percent, and testing is down 40 percent in these communities since the end of April.

“We urge people in these communities to take advantage of the availability of these test sites, even if they don’t have symptoms,” Baker said.

Despite the existence of these hotspots, Baker said his administration continues to observe “a downward trend on many of the key metrics,” including decrease in hospitalizations and a consistent positive test rate that has hovered around 2 percent for three weeks.

In light of that progress, Baker allowed Massachusetts to enter the third phase of his reopening strategy on Monday, which included the reopening of museums, small theaters and gyms. Boston is scheduled to enter that phase on Monday.

Still, Maine Gov. Janet Mills has kept Massachusetts off her list of states from where visitors can come to Maine to vacation this summer without being told to quarantine for 14-days or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. That list includes most of Massachusetts’s neighbors.

Baker said he had “collegial conversation” with Gov. Mills, a Democrat, about her decision to continue to require Bay State residents to quarantine or be tested if they want to visit “Vacationland.”

“I basically said, “I’ll put my data in Massachusetts up against your data any day,'” Baker said.

The governor also said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders spoke with her counterpart in Maine to share more specific data from Massachusetts, but he did not indicate that he expected anything to change with regard to the quarantine rules in Maine.

“What I would just say is that we have a lot of really great places to vacation and I would encourage everybody and anybody to pursue them, and especially the folks from the states that surround us that don’t have to rely on the 14-day quarantine,” Baker said.

Massachusetts last week lifted its own quarantine guidance for anyone entering the state from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York or New Jersey.

Baker continues to credit the success here as COVID-19 cases spike across the southern United States to the vigilance of residents wearing masks in public, even as lawsuits have been filed challenging Baker’s executive orders on facial coverings and business closures.

The New Civil Liberties Alliance filed a lawsuit in June challenging Baker’s authority under the Civil Defense Act to declare a state of emergency based on existence of the public health pandemic, which would invalidate much of what Baker has done during the pandemic to address the outbreak. Both the plaintiffs and the Baker administration have asked for a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to review the complaint, and Michael DeGrandis, senior counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said during a conference call on Thursday he expects a hearing in September.

“A September ruling would go a long way to clarify Massachusetts law and clarify whether there are limits on the governor’s authority under the Civil Defense Act,” DeGrandis said, adding, “It stands to reason that one of the reasons why I think the governor wants to press this case and move this case forward is because a lot of other cases are stacking up in state and federal court.”

“We’re not challenging the governor’s policies. The policies may be good. They may be bad. This issue is process,” DeGrandis said.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is not a plaintiff in the suit, but supports the action and shares the concerns it has raised for small businesses.

Baker did not address the lawsuit on Wednesday, but did mention how masks were effective in limiting the spread of COVID-19 during the massive public protests of police brutality last month.

“We never stepped on anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Baker said.

Recent polling done by Suffolk University for the WGBH News, the News Service and other outlets suggested people were becoming more relaxed about social distancing, and some of that shift in behavior was readily observed over this past Fourth of July weekend. Only 44.2 percent of those polled in mid-June said they were very strict about social distancing, compared with over 69 percent a little more than a month ago, and 11.4 said they weren’t strict at all.

Baker said he did not have any plans at this point to adjust his reopening strategy, even in communities with higher rates of infection, but would be watching to see what the enhanced testing data showed.

Asked if he had advice to people who might be traveling to New Hampshire to attend President Donald Trump’s rally in Portsmouth on Saturday, Baker kept it simple: “Wear a mask.”

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