Massachusetts is broadening the pool of people who they say should get tested for the coronavirus, as the state ramps up its testing capacity.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker announced new state guidelines recommending that even people with mild COVID-19 symptoms and anyone — regardless of whether they feel sick — officially identified as a close contact of a confirmed case should reach out to their health care provider about getting tested for the disease.
“Testing remains, obviously, a critically important pillar in our battle against COVID-19 both now and into the future, especially as we begin to plan the reopening process,” Baker said.
The new guidelines specifically list fever, chills, coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, headache, body aches, and the loss of one’s sense of taste or smell among the potential symptoms of COVID-19. Other less common symptoms include things like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and inflammatory conditions such as “COVID toe.”
State officials are now also recommending close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases get tested — even if they are asymptomatic — “as soon as possible.” A close contact is defined as either:
- Being less than 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for at least 10-15 minutes. Close contact can occur while caring for, living with, visiting, or sharing a healthcare waiting area or room with a COVID-19 case while the case was symptomatic or within the 48 hours before symptom onset.
- Having direct contact with infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case (e.g., being coughed on) while not wearing recommended personal protective equipment or PPE (e.g., gown, gloves, facemask, eye protection).
In a letter sent to health care providers and testing sites earlier this week, state health officials said that close contacts can provide a letter or text from the state’s contact tracing team or a letter from a local board of health indicating that they need to be tested. Close contacts are also required to quarantine for 14 days, even if their test comes back negative.
While the state has opened several drive-through testing sites for emergency responders and other frontline workers, most Massachusetts residents need to make an appointment through their health care provider to be tested.
If their facility cannot offer a test, residents can get a referral and make an appointment to go to one of the state’s more than 100 testing sites.
According to the new guidelines, asymptomatic individuals can be recommended for testing “at the discretion of their healthcare provider, a state agency, or an employer.”
The state had previously recommended that members of the general public seek testing only if their symptoms were serious, even though most people infected with the disease show only mild symptoms — or no symptoms at all. Baker said Wednesday that the approach resulted in “a lot of frustration and, in some cases, fear of the unknown” and left health experts with “limited awareness of where the virus was.”
However, the administration has worked to aggressively build up testing capacity. Baker said Wednesday that the state’s labs now have the ability to conduct about 30,000 tests a day. And during a press conference Thursday, he said the state is hoping to boost capacity to 45,000 tests a day by the end of July.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the state had performed a total of more than 410,000 tests and as many as 15,000 in a single day. On a per-capita basis, Massachusetts trails only Rhode Island, New York, and North Dakota for the highest testing rate in the country. Somerville also became the first city in the state last month to offer free testing to all residents, even if they don’t have symptoms.
“In fact, if Massachusetts was a country, we would be one of the highest testing-per-capita countries in the world,” Baker said Wednesday.
Baker said Thursday that the state is “not pursing universal testing because our health care experts agree that testing does have its limitations and should be more strategically applied.” He added that universal testing was “frankly too far off to rely on for our reopening.”
The new, expanded approach is “more attainable and recommended by our experts,” Baker said.