THE STATE DEPARTMENT of Public Health as of Friday had tested only 475 individuals for COVID-19, but officials say the amount of testing should dramatically increase with new federal guidelines that significantly relax restrictions on who can be tested and an expansion of the number of labs performing the analysis.
The state lab until Thursday had been the only facility in Massachusetts able to process test samples and federal guidelines restricted who could be tested. On March 4, officials said 20 tests had been performed. Six days later on March 10, state officials said the number had increased to “about 400.”
Marylou Sudders, the governor’s secretary of health and human services and the new head of a state COVID-19 command center, said at a State House press conference on Saturday that the number had risen to 475 as of Friday (three days after the 400 number was released), even though the testing capacity of the lab had been increased from 50 to 200 a day.
Gov. Charlie Baker said he expected the amount of testing to increase fairly dramatically as new labs approved by the federal government come on line to do their own testing and with new rules giving front-line clinicians more freedom to order tests themselves. Two private labs — Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp — gained approval earlier this week and Thermo Fisher Scientific’s approval was announced Saturday.
Previously, tests were reserved for those with fever and respiratory problems who had traveled to a country with a high level of the disease or had come in contact with someone who had COVID-19. The guidelines required the submission of nasal and throat swabs and prior DPH approval before they could be submitted.
Under the new requirements, prior approval is no longer necessary and one swab instead of two is allowed. The new rules also give clinicians a lot more authority to order tests based on their own observations and dispense with the requirement that the patient must have visited a country with a high level of the disease or come in contact with someone with COVID-19.
Sudders said the Centers for Disease Control had expanded its testing guidelines to medical workers and emergency personnel with symptoms of COVID-19, hospitalized patients with symptoms, and people with acute respiratory illnesses that have been in large groups of people that may have had contact with the virus.
Baker said roughly one in four of the 475 people tested were actually infected, but he said that percentage will likely drop as more testing is done. He said under the federal guidelines only those with a high likelihood of having the disease were being tested.
Sudders also said the state received only 10 percent of its request for personal protection equipment from the federal government – about 73,000 pieces in all. She said a shipment went to Berkshire County, which was running low, and the rest will be parceled out to other health centers around the state.
Baker said he is concentrating authority to address the COVID-19 crisis with Sudders, who will locate the command center at the Department of Public Health. The command center will have complete authority and discretion to tap $15 million in funds appropriated this week by the Legislature. Sudders said first priorities include quarantine operations, expanding lab capacity for testing, responding to local boards of health, monitoring the adequacy of protective equipment supplies, and identifying surge capacity within the Commonwealth’s health network.