Area COVID testing sites stretched thin

  • A nurse administers a COVID-19 test outside Holyoke Community College. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2020 7:19:41 PM

HOLYOKE — The Holyoke Community College COVID-19 testing site — one of the few state-sponsored “Stop the Spread” testing locations in western Massachusetts — is being stretched to its limits as hundreds of people flock to the site each day, sometimes resulting in hourslong waits and people being turned away.

South Hadley resident Shyanne Jackson decided to get tested at HCC last week after she began experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms. Hoping to confirm that she did not have COVID-19 so she could return to work, Jackson looked into scheduling a test at a CVS, which offers by-appointment testing, but the pharmacy was booked for days. She then turned to HCC, where she thought she would be tested the same day.

Instead, Jackson, who had arrived at the packed testing site about an hour after it opened, waited in a long line of cars for two hours until she was sent away by a staff member who told her that the site was at capacity for the day.

“It was extremely frustrating,” Jackson said. “I did it because I wasn’t feeling well … and don’t want to put anyone at risk, so I was staying home and not going anywhere until I got tested.”

Jackson eventually got tested at CVS, but needed to take the week off work as she waited for her appointment.

Other residents have had similar experiences at the testing site. The site was designed to test around 200-300 people per day, according to Holyoke Board of Health Director Sean Gonsalves. But with COVID-19 cases surging in the state and “several hundred” lining up for tests each day, he said, “the demand for testing has increased, but unfortunately, the availability of testing has not increased proportionately with the demand.”

Jackson said she is glad that the site is available as a free resource, but wishes that she knew how long the wait would be. She also thinks that more free testing sites would ease long waits, and hopes to see more federal guidance for testing under the Biden administration.

Currently, the only western Massachusetts Stop the Spread locations are in Holyoke and Springfield. No state-sponsored sites have been established in Hampshire, Franklin or Berkshire counties.

The Stop the Spread sites are not the only locations where people can be tested for COVID-19 in the area: CVS pharmacies, Cooley Dickinson Hospital and other medical offices also provide testing, though some of these locations require a doctor’s referral, only provide symptomatic testing or require an appointment.

For Laila Tomsovic of Haydenville, the HCC location seemed like “the most convenient, most immediate” option for testing when she and her daughter were experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms. Having heard of the long lines, Tomsovic aimed to arrive 30 minutes early for testing last week, but ended up getting to the site 5 to 10 minutes before its opening. Tomsovic and her daughter were tested, but needed to wait three hours for their turn. Combined with the half-hour drive to and from the site, the experience took around four hours total.

Tomsovic did not have a busy schedule that day, she said, and the wait was not particularly disruptive for her personally. Staff members at the testing site were “hustling” and “very apologetic about the wait,” Tomsovic said, adding that she was “really grateful to them for what they were doing.”

But Tomsovic also thinks that the area would benefit from more testing sites like the one at HCC, and “would certainly understand other people with complaints about the wait,” she said, particularly among those in more pressing circumstances.

Legislators, officials push for more testing sites

State Sen. Jo Comerford said she has fielded “countless” constituent complaints from individuals, families, schools and businesses who are “hampered by an inability to count on fast, free, accessible testing when they need it.”

Comerford and other Massachusetts legislators, including state Reps. Mindy Domb, Natalie Blais and Dan Carey, have been pushing the state for months to establish more testing sites in western Massachusetts, she said. But so far, Comerford said, state officials have not indicated that they will give the proposal deeper consideration.

“They continue to say that their approach is data-driven,” Comerford said, “and I would say, respectfully, that there’s more to equity than sheer numbers … If you just count the numbers in western Massachusetts, our people will never get the services they need and deserve.”

Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged Tuesday that long lines at COVID-19 testing sites are an issue and said his administration is talking to the federal government and others about ways that Massachusetts could soon expand testing capacity, provide access to new types of coronavirus tests, and change the way it makes testing available to residents.

Gonsalves, Holyoke’s health board director, said he and Holyoke Community College have also reached out to the state to request more testing sites in the area.

“We have these testing sites in Holyoke because we want people to get tested,” Gonsalves said. “We think it’s important. But at the same time, we’re at the end of our resources, so they’d be helping the community by opening another site.”

Gonsalves hopes to see another site established in a different community to broaden accessibility of testing for those who aren’t near Holyoke.

The city’s test sites offer testing six days a week at HCC and three days a week at a walk-up location at 323 Appleton St., which is also sponsored by Stop the Spread. People seem less willing to visit the walk-up site, Gonsalves said, but noted that it can serve as an alternative to the HCC location.

“Holyoke is doing its part to help the region and make testing available,” Gonsalves said. “But at some point,” he added, the state “is going to have to open another test site somewhere else to support this one.”

The HCC testing site, in parking lot H near the Donahue Building’s western entrance, is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 7 to 11 a.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 2 to 7 p.m. The walk-up site on Appleton Street is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 6 p.m.

A drive-through Stop the Spread location is also available at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, though high demand has also been reported at this site. Additionally, the Stop the Spread initiative has a by-appointment site at 595 Cottage St. in Springfield, and a walk-up location at Roger L Putnam Vocational Technical Academy.

Material from State House News Service was included in this report.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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