COVID-19 testing in Mass. is ‘far short’ of levels needed to stop the spread

Another takeaway: A ramped-up testing infrastructure will remain crucial to public health, well after vaccines are widely available.

“It’s not at the pace we would have expected,” said Donna Hochberg, a partner at consultancy Health Advances who leads the firm’s diagnostics practice. “Testing really does help control the pandemic.”

Bain Capital cochair Steve Pagliuca, who leads the tech council’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, hosted the event on Monday. The tech council’s main goal is to educate employers and public leaders about the continued need to focus on testing strategies even as the fight against COVID-19 enters a new phase with the arrival of vaccines. In its latest report on the issue, the tech council recommended that federal, state, and local governments develop a systematic, expanded testing regime using multiple kinds of tests and employing public-private partnerships.

Pagliuca, also a co-owner of the Boston Celtics, noted how the number of tests is still falling short even in Massachusetts — a state that is considered a leader in this regard.

In the spring, the tech council recommended that at least 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day take place in Massachusetts by the end of June. The council recommended 500,000 to 1 million by the end of the fall, to stop the second wave of the virus. The actual number of tests has risen to an average of about 70,000 a day, according to the latest tech council report, but many are happening in higher education settings. Remove college campuses from the equation, and the number is closer to 45,000 a day — a tiny fraction of the nearly 7 million people who live in the state.

“We’re actually testing very few people in the general population,” Pagliuca said. “It’s far short of the levels being recommended to stop the spread.”

The second wave of the virus has indeed begun, and many experts say it is happening at a faster clip with broader geographic reach than they initially envisioned. But “proactive surveillance testing” could be critical to get this wave under control, Pagliuca said.

Thermo Fisher Scientific chief executive Marc Casper said a nationwide testing strategy — similar but on a bigger scale to how universities use COVID-19 testing to control the disease — could make a real difference. Labs across the country could process as many as 40 million PCR tests (the highly accurate tests that identify the virus’ genetic material) a week right now, while only about 10 million tests a week are actually being conducted, he said.

Casper’s company, a giant diagnostics maker based in Waltham, could produce as many as 20 million tests a week in the US right now given its current manufacturing capacity.  While the current demand for testing is strong, Casper said, it isn’t matching up with available supply.  “We’re probably selling at half that rate,” he said. “If you went to a [coordinated testing] strategy, … there would be some bumps in the road in matching supply and demand, but they would get sorted out.”

In Massachusetts, at least, the number of PCR tests continues to trend upward, and has cleared 100,000 on a handful of days this month, according to the latest state data. (The average daily test rate includes weekend days, when testing drops off significantly.)

These local numbers will likely continue to grow. The Baker administration on Monday announced plans to roughly double the rate of testing at all long-term care facilities, and to start testing visitors as well. This follows an announcement last week that tests would be distributed in public school districts across the state. In both cases, the tests will be funded by federal subsidies.

Meanwhile, the private-sector is responding, too. CIC started selling tests at its Main Street location in Cambridge a few weeks ago, for example. And on Monday, Logan Airport master concessionaire New England Development announced that XpresSpa Group has opened its testing facility in Terminal E for passengers (for a fee), in addition to the airport and airline workers who were already using it.

During the tech council’s presentation on Monday, National Basketball Association executive David Weiss said daily PCR testing was instrumental to the success of the 2020 NBA playoffs, held in a quarantine-style “bubble” in Orlando. Players weren’t the only ones tested. So were the hotel workers and bus drivers and everyone else who came in contact with the players. Not one player is believed to have caught COVID-19 during the time they played in the bubble.

“Testing was critical for that,” Weiss said. “It allowed us to identify dozens of people who would have been coming in … and [remove] them from that group.”

The panelists suggested that antigen tests — less expensive but also less reliable than PCR tests — be made widely available so people could monitor whether it’s likely they are infected. Antigen tests would be particularly useful for surveillance purposes, to quarantine suspected cases and then recheck with PCR tests, Pagliuca said. The tech council report quotes Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House’s COVID-19 response, as saying national testing needs to be increased by ten times the current amount to test symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

Hochberg said that even as COVID-19 vaccines arrive on the scene, the need for testing will not go away, particularly as more people return to their offices after many months of working from home. And the tech council noted that it could take six to 12 months for vaccines to be successfully distributed. By that point, the council said in its report, the virus could cause significant further economic damage.

“There’s a danger that we stop testing when we should be accelerating testing,” Hochberg said.

It’s not just about fighting this virus, Pagliuca said. It’s also about building a testing and contact-tracing infrastructure that can quickly respond to the next pandemic.

“There is capacity out there for tests,” Pagliuca said. “There are ways to change our regime. We need to push as hard as we can to get those programs into place.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.

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