Signs indicate that western Massachusetts may be past the peak of COVID-19 cases, but experts say the true extent of the infection can’t be known without more widespread testing.
Until recently, most testing for the coronavirus was limited to people who were hospitalized. Last week, Baystate Health opened five drive-through, or walk-up, testing sites. It increased capacity by about 400 tests per day, according to Dr. Mark Keroack, the president and CEO of Baystate Health.
"From my standpoint we could be doing way more testing," he said.
To be tested a patient needs a referral from a primary care physician or an urgent care center. But to know the true size of the outbreak, Keroack said a wider net must be cast.
"We'd like to be able to test asymptomatic patients," said Keroack. "We've really restricted testing because of the limitations of our machines and test kits."
The fact the coronavirus is new complicates testing, according to Keroack. There is not yet a simple test for it like there is for the seasonal flu or strep throat.
"From a simple numbers and containment game we should be doing 5-10 times as much testing as we are doing today, not only in western Massachusetts but as a country," said Keroack.
Over 5,000 people have now been tested for the coronavirus at Baystate and the percentage of positive tests has slowly declined since the pandemic began. The hospitalization rate has also fallen. The hospital system has had about 130 COVID-19 patients a day for the past week after hitting a peak of more than 170 patients in early April. The hospitals are currently at just 40 percent capacity.
Antibody tests, which can show if someone was infected with the disease but was unaware of it, are currently not available in western Massachusetts, but could be in a week or two according to Dr. Robert Roose , chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center.
"We are being cautious in evaluating when those tests are ready," said Roose noting there a danger of a high number of false postitives from certain antibody tests.
A plan to do large-scale testing of Springfield’s homeless population has been on hold because of what the city’s Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said is a workforce issue with one of the city’s partners in the testing program.
" We certainly are concerned about our homeless population," said Caulton-Harris. "It is not something we have forgotten about or take lightly. The mayor and I will continue to work on continuing to make sure we get the testing done."
Springfield spent $400,000 to build a tent complex to care for the homeless, but was unable initially to secure test kits.
A protest over the lack of testing of the homeless was held outside City Hall. Dozens of people circled the block and blared their car horns.
The protest was organized by the Pioneer Valley Project.