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Regional Equity Sought In Latest Massachusetts COVID-19 Testing Initiative

COVID-19 Diagram
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s latest effort to expand testing for COVID-19 is drawing criticism in western Massachusetts. 

Eight municipalities where new free testing sites will be set up under Baker’s “Stop the Spread” plan are all located in eastern or central Massachusetts with the closest one to Springfield almost 70 miles away.

This has raised concern from public health officials and drawn criticism from state legislators who represent the region.   State Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow, said it is “inexcusable and just defies common sense that you would not have a single site west of (Interstate) 495.”

Similar concerns about regional disparities were raised early on in the pandemic over testing the homeless.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said Monday that he’s complained to the Baker administration about being left out of the latest testing plan.

"They know we want more testing out here in western Mass, and I am sure that they will move forward to make that come about," said Sarno.

Four Springfield City Councilors have filed a resolution calling for the state to set up additional free testing sites in western Massachusetts.

The eight municipalities were picked for the program because all have positive test rates for COVID-19 that far exceed the state’s average and the number of people being tested has been falling, according to the Baker administration.   When asked last week about a lack of testing sites in western Massachusetts the Republican governor said “adjustments” could be made if circumstances warrant.

Western Massachusetts saw a surge in COVID-19 cases that peaked in early April.  Since May, the number of new daily cases has remained low. But with the virus raging out of control in other parts of the country and with concerns that it will spread new infections to Massachusetts, more testing is imperative, according to the city of Springfield’s Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris.

"If the Commonwealth can stand up testing sites in other parts of the state, they certainly can do that same service in western Massachusetts and currently that is not the case," said Caulton-Harris. 

"It is critically important that we are able to test asymptomatic individuals," said Caulton-Harris.

Demand for testing is increasing as hospitals screen more patients for elective surgeries, long-term care facilities test residents and staff, large employers look to test their workers prior to reopening and people planning to travel want to get tested.  

At the same time, there is a shortage of testing supplies, said Dr. Sarah Haessler, an infectious disease specialist at Baystate Medical Center.

"It is a national supply issue and there are shortages of multiple things," said Haessler.

Haessler says some manufacturers have put purchasing limits on supplies.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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