Local communities to receive free COVID test kits from the state

  • A box of at-home COVID-19 tests. STAFF PHOTO BY BEN CONANT

Staff Writer
Published: 12/14/2021 1:24:02 PM
Modified: 12/14/2021 1:23:27 PM

Northampton, Greenfield and many other communities in the region will soon be doling out rapid at-home COVID-19 test kits at no cost thanks to a new state program announced Monday.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration said that it will send 2.1 million free over-the-counter rapid antigen tests to the state’s 102 municipalities with the highest percentage of families below the poverty level. In addition to Northampton and Greenfield, other local cities and towns on that list include Athol, Wendell, Buckland, Charlemont, Hawley, Winchendon, Heath, Colrain, Bernardston, Montague, Erving, and Leyden.

“With the holidays approaching, we encourage residents to utilize rapid tests as a convenient way to keep family members and friends safe at gatherings,” Baker said in a press release Monday.

The announcement also said that the Baker administration is finalizing plans to let cities, towns and other public entities to “directly purchase tests from test manufacturers at fixed, state-negotiated prices.”

The administration noted that the 102 municipalities are home to some 3.7 million residents. Massachusetts has a population of 6.9 million people.

In its announcement, the Baker administration said the chosen cities and towns will be able to determine how to distribute tests, with an emphasis on prioritizing those most in need. Merridith O’Leary, Northampton’s public health director, laughed when asked Monday whether her department had any concrete plans yet for the tests. They had only learned the news of the tests several hours earlier.

However, O’Leary said she has long imagined what she might do if her public health department had greater access to rapid tests. She said the emphasis will be on equity and accessibility, focusing on congregate settings such as shelters, soup kitchens, the Senior Center or Northampton Housing Authority properties.

“I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to hear we were on that list,” O’Leary said. She said the tests are “a great tool when it comes to risk reduction of COVID-19,” but stressed that they are not a substitute for getting vaccinated — the most effective tool in combating the pandemic.

Coronavirus cases have spiked across the region and state recently. The entire state is again experiencing a “high” level of community transmission, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And with hospitals again filling up, on Friday Baker’s administration issued new guidance calling on hospitals to cut nonessential and elective services and procedures by 50%.

Franklin County and North Quabbin

Cities and towns in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region also received testing kits from the state.

Quantities ranged from 180 kits in small towns such as Hawley, Heath, Leyden and Monroe to quantities in the thousands, with Athol and Greenfield receiving the most at 5,220 and 5,760, respectively. Towns are currently discussing options for how to distribute the kits.

“The town has discretion to develop its own plan for making those available to the public,” Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis, whose town will receive 2,700 kits by “early next week at the latest,” said at a Selectboard meeting on Monday. “I wouldn’t imagine that putting 2,700 of them out directly through Town Hall would be an effective distribution system and will probably want to partner with some local organizations to support that.”

Testing availability

Other states have gone farther than Massachusetts when it comes to rapid at-home tests, including New Hampshire, which sent eight free rapid COVID-19 tests to any resident who requested one.

“I think the principles of the program are awesome, O’Leary said of the Baker administration’s program. “I wish that there were many more to be doled out than just to 102 communities, but in essence I think it’s a great program.”

O’Leary noted that the state continues to host free “Stop the Spread” testing sites, which use “gold-standard” PCR tests with results back as quickly as 24 to 36 hours. That includes a drive-up testing location at Holyoke Community College, a walk-up testing site at Holyoke’s War Memorial at 310 Appleton St., and another location at Greenfield Community College.

State Rep. Patricia Duffy, D-Holyoke, said that like O’Leary, she is pleased to see her community on the list of municipalities to receive the free rapid tests from the state. She said that she recently met with family for the holidays, and before the gathering everybody was able to take a rapid COVID-19 test to be more confident that nobody had the virus.

“Because we were able to afford it,” Duffy said. She added that others, however, don’t have similar access to resources like COVID-19 tests. “It’s all about equity, and Holyoke is certainly a city where we have a lot of families and a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have the means.”

Duffy applauded the state testing program as a “good first step.”

“It doesn’t address the entire question of equity across the board,” she said. “I applaud it as a first step and there’s nothing wrong with looking to other states for best practices.”

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