State to close COVID testing sites in Amherst, Holyoke

  • Covid testing samples at the UMass testing site at the Mullins Center. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Kenedy Petersen, a UMass student employee, waits to register people for Covid testing at the UMass testing site at the Mullins Center.

Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2022 8:51:21 PM
Modified: 3/15/2022 8:50:40 PM

Two prominent COVID-19 testing sites for the region are closing at the end of March as declining case numbers cause demand for the free, state-supported service to plummet.

While the Stop the Spread locations on the University of Massachusetts and Holyoke Community College campuses are expected to shut down after operations on March 31, legislators who serve Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties are appealing to Gov. Charlie Baker to rethink the recent decision that will end the PCR testing at 30 of the 41 sites across Massachusetts.

“The Stop the Spread site has proven invaluable in the battle to identify community outbreaks and take steps to curb higher education transmission rates and prevent spread to the wider community,” lawmakers wrote in a Friday letter to the Department of Public Health,

The legislators suggest the community testing, housed in the Public Health Promotion Center at UMass since December 2020, could continue for two more months, until June 1, which would get the region through the end of the semester at local college campuses and the commencement season.

In addition, Amherst officials are making a direct appeal to Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders to keep the Amherst site open to the community.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Council President Lynn Griesemer and Health Director Jennifer Brown sent the letter endorsing continued robust community testing.

“The discontinuation of this program comes at a critical time as the population is transitioning from mask mandates to navigating risk reduction,” they write. “At the end of this week approximately 30,000 students and other members of our community will be returning to Amherst from spring break. It is crucial to understand the direction of the disease in regards to case transmission, as well as new variants that may have different virulence or fitness.”

In addition to the Amherst and Holyoke sites, which opened in August 2020, testing at Greenfield Community College is also ending.

The Baker administration cited an 80% decrease in demand for testing since the beginning of January, when the omicron variant of COVID was at its peak. It also noted that at-home rapid antigen tests are now widely available to the public, either for free or through insurance reimbursement.

But Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said while at-home tests are good for identifying cases, they are not part of a surveillance system, and that is a key concern due to the large number of college students who live in neighborhoods.

“Given Amherst’s significant off-campus college population, this surveillance has been key to recognizing and responding to outbreaks,” Domb said.

Besides testing students, faculty and staff, the UMass site has also conducted over 21,000 community tests since Jan. 1, or more than 2,300 community tests per week.

If it does close, starting April 1 Amherst will receive an allocation of 6,120 rapid antigen tests, or 3,060 kits, that will be distributed from the Bangs Center weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. These will replace the weekly supply of 1,000 PCR tests the town has been able to distribute.

PCR testing will still be available locally after March 31 at the Holyoke Mall, in Easthampton at Millside Park, in Springfield at Eastfield Mall, and at various other sites around the state. Tests currently can also be done at area Walgreens stories, at the War Memorial Building in Holyoke and other locations listed at https://www.mass.gov/info-details/find-a-covid-19-test.

The legislators also note the challenge area residents face trying to get to the closest remaining location that is part of the Stop the Spread initiative, at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield.

“As you know, even without spiking gas prices, this region has barely any cross-county transit, creating transportation challenges to the remaining sites,” the letter states.

Until April 1, the drive-through COVID-19 testing at Holyoke Community College will continue six days a week in Parking Lot M by the Bartley Center for Athletics & Recreation at 303 Homestead Ave., open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The UMass site for unobserved testing of asymptomatic individuals is in the lower level of the Campus Center and is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to noon.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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