Massachusetts releases new isolation protocols, as the state leans in on rapid COVID-19 tests

Gov. Charlie Baker's administration plans to distribute 26 million rapid tests to schools and child care providers in the coming months as a "legitimate alternative" to PCR tests.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker at a press conference Tuesday morning. Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is clarifying its recommendations for Massachusetts residents exposed to or infected with COVID-19, as the state continues to weather record infection rates and rising hospitalizations this winter due to the extremely transmissible but generally milder omicron variant.

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In alignment with recent federal guidelines, the new Department of Public Health advisory released Tuesday only advises residents to seek a COVID-19 test if they are exhibiting symptoms of the disease or five days after they were exposed to someone who tested positive, regardless of vaccination status.

However, as many testing sites around Massachusetts continue to be plagued by long lines and wait times, Baker stressed Tuesday that a rapid COVID-19 test result does not need to be confirmed by a PCR test. He also discouraged organizations from requiring individuals to get a PCR test to return from isolation.

According to Baker, rapid antigen tests aren’t just “convenient and efficient,” they should be sufficient, too.

“PCR tests are the ones frequently used at drive-thru and on-site testing facilities,” he told reporters during a press conference Tuesday. “They can take up to 24 to 72 hours to produce results, while rapid test … can turn results around in 15 minutes. Rapid tests are highly accurate at determining when an individual is at their most transmissible period of COVID-19. And they have many advantages to PCR testing, especially at this point in the pandemic.”

To be clear, the new DPH advisory does not recommend employers, schools, or child care providers require any test after individuals finish their isolation period.

“However, if they do require testing, DPH recommends they do not require a PCR test,” Baker said.

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If you test positive for COVID-19

Everyone, regardless of vaccination status:— Stay home for 5 days.
— If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving after 5 days, you can leave your house.
— Continue to wear a mask around others for 5 additional days.

If you have a fever, continue to stay home until your fever resolves.

If you were exposed to someone with COVID-19

If you:Have been boosted
OR

Completed the primary series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine within the last 5 months
OR
Completed the primary series of J&J vaccine within the last 2 months
— Wear a mask around others for 10 days.
— Test on day 5, if possible.

If you develop symptoms get a test and stay home.
If you:Completed the primary series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over 5 months ago and are not boosted
OR
Completed the primary series of J&J over 2 months ago and are not boosted
OR
Are unvaccinated
— Stay home for 5 days. After that continue to wear a mask around others for 5 additional days.
— If you can’t quarantine you must wear a mask for 10 days.
— Test on day 5, if possible.

If you develop symptoms get a test and stay home

Baker said that his office had anecdotally heard from testing sites that “a lot” of the people there were doing so because they were required to get a PCR test by an employer or school. With many testing sites struggling with staffing, the governor indicated that the state had no plans to open more.

“We believe the antigen tests, which are enormously accurate, especially on the back end of contagion, are a perfectly suitable solution,” he said. “And I think one of the things we’re trying to make clear here today, both to individuals and to employers generally, is a PCR test is appropriate in certain circumstances. But these rapid tests can be used in many circumstances as a legitimate alternative.”

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At the same time, the new DPH advisory says that those with COVID-19 symptoms who test negative on a rapid antigen test should continue to isolate and either get another rapid test or a PCR test in 24 to 48 hours if their symptoms continue.

The new guidance comes as Baker also announced Tuesday morning that the state has acquired 26 million additional rapid antigen tests that they plan to distribute on a rolling basis to K-12 schools and child care centers through the end of March. The shipments add to the 2.1 million rapid tests the administration purchased for communities with high poverty rates last month and the 200,000 it recently distributed to schools returning from the winter holiday break.

Depending on supply, Baker said the idea of making the free take-home tests “available more broadly, if we can, is certainly something that’s on our radar.”

The Republican governor also said he will activate an additional 500 members of the National Guard to join the 500 guard members already providing non-clinical support to short-staffed hospitals dealing with the rise in COVID-19 patients.

As of Monday, Massachusetts is averaging nearly 19,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, triple the peak rate during last winter’s surge and likely a massive undercount.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations — which are disproportionately unvaccinated residents — is also nearing 3,000, a level not seen since May 2020, at a time when hospitals are also facing staffing shortages.

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Baker stressed Tuesday that vaccines “remain our best tool” against COVID-19.

“The data on this is unassailable at this point in time,” he said.

While the new quarantine protocols recommend all exposed individuals get a COVID-19 test five days after their exposure, it is not a requirement, especially for those who have been recently vaccinated and don’t have symptoms.

The new advisory says that close contacts who have gotten a booster shot, gotten their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine within five months, gotten their single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with two months, or had COVID-19 within the last 90 days should wear a mask for 10 days and get a test on the fifth day, “if possible.”

Baker noted that Massachusetts is continuing to administer between 40,000 and 50,000 vaccine doses a day between primary series shots and boosters.

“Getting vaccinated and boosted remains your best possible protection from getting really sick,” he said. “Testing has a specific use in combination with vaccines. And we hope that DPH’s advisory will help people navigate this issue.”

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