BOSTON – While Omicron is fueling a record number of new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that his government had bought 26 million new rapid antigen tests for K-12 schools and daycare centers over the next three months To support programs that aim to preserve personal learning.
Baker has not wavered that the state must do everything in its power to prevent a return to distance learning for children he has described as detrimental to their academic and social development.
Baker described schools as “safe and healthy,” despite rising student and staff cases, and signaled no willingness to budge by the rules that prohibit distance learning from counting toward the 180-day public school requirement, even if a city is like Boston on the possibility of whether or not schools are counted for study time.
“I think the most important thing we have to do with these tests and other tools is get the students into school,” said Baker.
The new rapid tests will arrive in Massachusetts this week, in addition to the 2.1 million tests that Baker secured and distributed to select cities last month, as well as the 200,000 tests that are being sent to schools and daycare centers. The governor combined his testing announcement with new guidelines from the Department of Health on when people should be tested for COVID-19 and assurances that antigen tests are accurate and can, in many cases, be used in place of PCR testing.
“Rapid tests are very accurate at determining when a person is in the most highly communicable phase of COVID-19, and they have many advantages over PCR testing, especially at this point in the pandemic,” Baker said at a state news conference House.
Baker made his rapid test announcement hours before his planned testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management about his government’s response to the Omicron surge. Many lawmakers in the past few weeks have urged Baker to do more to slow the spread of the virus as infections have led to staff shortages and, in some cases, forced schools to close due to staff shortages.
“Everywhere I go, all I hear is that we need more testing – in schools, hospitals, and communities …” Senate President Karen Spilka tweeted Tuesday morning, teasing the prudential hearing when she said she hoped to get more from Baker and Health Hear and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders on the matter.
While PCR testing has long been considered the gold standard for COVID-19 detection, appointments were tight as many residents had to queue for hours for walk-up tests or wait days to get an appointment. Baker said Massachusetts has as much per capita testing capacity “as you can find anywhere in America,” but said increasing the availability of rapid tests should help alleviate some of the demand problems.
The order for the new rapid antigen tests was placed with iHealth, the same Californian manufacturer that supplied the 2.1 million tests that were purchased and distributed to select cities last month. Shipment of the new tests is expected from now through March on an ongoing basis, subject to supply chain availability, and Baker said his administration will have more details on the sales plans shortly.
“We want to make sure we have enough rapid antigen tests available for both schools during the school term through June, as well as for early education and care,” said Sudders, who joined Baker at the morning press conference.
Many school districts, officials said, participate in government-organized pool testing programs or the test-and-stay program, which allows students and teachers exposed to COVID-19 to stay in the classroom while the rapid test is negative. Baker said these programs “likely saved 450,000 personal school days,” and the Department of Early Education said last week that they want to expand the test-and-stay program to childcare centers.
DPH’s new policy recommends getting tested if they show symptoms or have confirmed close contact with someone with COVID-19. Close contacts are advised to get tested five days after exposure, and Baker said that rapid testing “in most situations” is a good alternative to PCR testing.
The department also said that exposed people are not advised to be quarantined if they are fully vaccinated and either received their booster vaccination or are not yet eligible, or if they have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days.
Because some testing need is attributed to residents who need PCR testing to return to work or school after isolation, Baker recommends that DPH not require testing after isolation, but if a company or school makes that decision, it will advised against requesting a PCR test.
Additionally, the DPH is now advising that a positive COVID-19 rapid antigen test does not need to be confirmed with a PCR test, which could impact the state’s collection of new case data, as home tests are not reported to the state.
Anyone with symptoms who test negative with a rapid antigen test should isolate and either repeat an antigen test or get a PCR test within 24 to 48 hours if the symptoms persist according to the DPH.
The governor also said he will activate an additional 500 members of the National Guard to help with staffing challenges in hospitals across the state, on top of the 500 members of the Guard already called up to assist.
“At this point in time, there is no question that staffing remains an enormous challenge for many of these providers. This activation will relieve some of the pressure in these locations, ”said Baker.
The most recent data published by the DPH showed that 92% of the country’s 8,734 inpatient medical and surgical beds and 85% of 1,259 intensive care beds were occupied.
The state reported Monday that there are currently 2,923 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, including 1,293 fully vaccinated people hospitalized for another health condition.
“Vaccines and boosters work,” said Baker. “The relevant data cannot be viewed at this point in time. They were a turning point in relation to this pandemic. “