Testing bumped up in outer Cape towns

Boston Statehouse

A health worker takes a nasal swab sample at a COVID-19 testing site at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic in Los Angeles in July. (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

BOSTON (SHNS) – For the second time in as many weeks, Cape Cod officials announced an expansion of COVID-19 testing resources as they work to address a worrying “testing desert” in the region.

Outer Cape Health Services, the community health center serving residents on the Cape’s farthest stretches, plans to double the testing hours at its Wellfleet and Provincetown locations. By next week, it hopes to have another site up and running at its Harwich Port clinic, CEO Pat Nadle said during a Thursday call hosted by the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force.

The health center will work to both deploy expanded rapid testing resources and increase its capacity for PCR molecular tests through a partnership with the Broad Institute.

Those add to two other new sites, formally launched this week, in Falmouth and Hyannis that together can handle hundreds more tests per day to boost capacity in an area where local leaders have warned for months about insufficient access.

“The testing rate is improving on the Cape, but we continue to lag the state,” said Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat who chairs the task force. “We’re seeing improvement on mid-Cape with testing rates, but particularly when you look at the Outer Cape communities in particular — Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro — have some of the lowest testing rates in the state, so we continue to be concerned there.”

Already, the Hyannis site had 700 people in a virtual queue who had called seeking appointments for tests, prompting officials to keep the site running as best as possible during Thursday’s snowstorm.

Hyannis Fire Chief Peter Burke said he believes the site could ramp up to 300 or more tests per day.

Amid a statewide second surge in the highly infectious virus, confirmed cases continue to trend upward in Barnstable County, with an outbreak on Nantucket remaining particularly “problematic,” according to Vera Harik, deputy director of the county’s department of human services.

Deaths also appear to be accelerating in the region.

“We’ve broken out of the pattern we set in the summer and fall of maybe a couple, or three to five fatalities per week,” Harik said. “Now we seem to be accumulating easily, every three days, four or new five fatalities. It’s just really unfortunate.”

Some of the telephone lines to get appointments at the new sites have hours-long lines, but Cyr said any kinks should hopefully be smoothed over as operations get up to full speed.

“Because we have limited resources, because essentially we’ve had to build this ourselves — we haven’t had support from the state — we’re having to figure this out,” Cyr, a Truro Democrat who chairs the task force, said, calling the system a “patchwork” where some symptomatic tests are covered.

“We don’t have limitless resources where we could pay for all of this,” he added.

Although Cyr said Cape officials have had “really good partnership” from the Baker administration, local leaders have hinted at frustration on several occasions with the state’s response. The closest existing state-run Stop the Spread site to the Cape is in New Bedford, and officials continue to push for the administration to open one more accessible to the region’s residents.

Unlike many other parts of Massachusetts, however, the Cape area has what Cyr called a “robust” county government, offering a more centralized approach to fill in gaps that might otherwise exist if each city or town’s health department was left to its own plans.

“From a broader policy perspective, this is a real indictment of the deeply fragmented health delivery system we have in this commonwealth and in this country,” Cyr said. “We really cherish local control in New England and in Massachusetts, and I think there’s a lot of good things about that, but that has also made coordination and access and rollout of testing — has also made it challenging.”

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