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Amid swell of COVID-19 cases, towns seek extra test kits

  • Nicole Ducharme of the Greenfield Health Department with a COVID-19 rapid test. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A COVID-19 rapid test at the Greenfield Health Department. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2022 5:01:48 PM
Modified: 1/5/2022 5:01:08 PM

As COVID-19 case numbers rise locally and statewide, communities across Franklin County are exploring their options for purchasing at-home test kits for local distribution.

“We’ve had calls in the last 10 days from Ashfield, Buckland, Colrain, Shelburne, (Montague and Erving), all wanting to purchase kits with their (American Rescue Plan Act) funds,” said Phoebe Walker, director of community services at Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “It is an allowable expense under ARPA funds, so we are trying to help towns understand how to access those state bids.”

Following the state’s distribution last month of free COVID-19 test kits to 102 municipalities with the highest percentage of families below the poverty level — which included several Franklin County communities — Gov. Charlie Baker announced that contracts with manufacturers would allow municipalities and other eligible entities to purchase rapid test kits at state-negotiated prices.

In Montague, the Selectboard unanimously approved using ARPA funds to buy 1,000 kits through state contracts, adding to the 2,700 kits the town initially received. The extra kits would primarily be used to test town employees and thus “ensure continuity of government services,” said Selectboard Clerk Matt Lord.

The vote on Monday followed a discussion between board members and Health Director Daniel Wasiuk, in which there was concern over the accuracy of tests, as well as whether the town would have the staff to distribute them once they arrived.

“Don’t think we can distribute these without a paid, organized staff,” Town Administrator Steve Ellis told board members, noting the Health Department could handle some of the efforts. “We’ll really need to build a structure for distribution.”

On Tuesday, the Whately Board of Health discussed purchasing a small supply of BinaxNOW test kits for use on town residents.

“We could have these tests available and we could quickly — as a Board of Health — do it on an as-needed basis,” Board of Health Chair Francis Fortino said. “I think we should start that process.”

Alex White, Deerfield’s health agent and Foothills Health District member, joined the Whately Board of Health to talk about the tests. He added they can only order up to four boxes, which each contain 40 tests.

“Based on the rapidness, we think this is a really good tool,” White said. “It’s not a PCR test, but it’s better than nothing.”

At the end of the meeting, the board agreed to pursue getting some of the tests.

“We’re going to try to leverage our funding from ARPA money,” Fortino said concerning payment.

In the western part of the county, Buckland Town Administrator Heather Butler said while her town is investigating the possibility of buying test kits through the state contracts, it’s also considering other options.

“There are a lot of vendors that have been reaching out to town managers and administrators as well,” Butler said. “I’ll bring forward to the Selectboard and the Finance Committee a couple of different options and see if that is something they want to pursue.”

Of the 900 free tests Buckland received from the state before the holidays, she said only a few dozen remain.

“People were very appreciative because they were not able to find them in the pharmacies,” she said.

The test kits, especially for town employees, she said, would help prevent spread.

“Like all the small towns, the staff we have is so skeletal, so bare bones, that if I have an exposure in my Highway Department of four people and two of them go out and we get a snowstorm ... this is not the time of a year I can risk a COVID outbreak among staff,” Butler explained.

The town of Ashfield is also exploring its options for purchasing test kits, according to Town Administrator Paul McClatchy III. Those options, however, are not limited to the state’s contracts, noting purchasing minimums on some may exceed the town’s needs.

“We want to get them for staff members, because if somebody here tests positive, that throws everybody here into a little bit of chaos,” McClatchy said. “There may be people in town who can’t afford kits; we don’t want to assume everybody can afford kits.”

He added that particularly in the wake of the holiday season, testing site availability is limited.

“We just want to make sure it’s available as an option for those who may not be able to go through the traditional testing methods,” McClatchy said.

In Greenfield, the Health Department has fielded calls from people in need of negative tests before heading back to school, or people who attended holiday parties and are worried they may have been exposed, according to Health Director Jennifer Hoffman.

Hoffman said city still has free test kits from its initial distribution by the state and also received some from the Community Health Center of Franklin County. The kits from the state, she emphasized, are for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

“That was met with a lot of frustration from people who couldn’t find testing kits elsewhere, but we had to comply,” Hoffman said.

She said at this stage, the city has kits and they are available to purchase around the community. If there’s a need for more, they can be ordered.

“There’s a high demand, but we’re doing the best with what we have,” Hoffman said. “We just ask for people’s patience and kindness.”

At-home tests ‘best when symptomatic’

The search for at-home test kits comes in the midst of the post-holiday surge and as the colder weather sets in, but health officials caution against relying on them as proof of a negative result.

“When people do it as a screen to go to a family’s house or a party, it doesn’t mean 100% that you’re negative,” Hoffman said. “(At-home tests) are not as accurate if you have no symptoms. … They’re best when you’re symptomatic.”

She added that if a person has symptoms of a head cold or a cold, get tested.

“It’s probably … not a cold,” she said.

Beyond at-home test kits, which are also available at local pharmacies, though often in short supply, testing continues to be available at the Stop the Spread Site at Greenfield Community College (GCC).

Hoffman, who is in regular contact with the supervisor of the site, said in recent weeks, the site has been — and continues to be — “very, very busy.”

People have been advised to make appointments in advance — complete with a Labpass account — rather than rely on walk-ins, of which there is limited availability. Each person who arrives without having completed the registration process can take up to 15 minutes to check-in, Hoffman said.

Vaccines ‘are what we need’

In Greenfield, there are 141 active cases, 99 of which tested positive in January, as of Wednesday morning, according to the city’s COVID-19 update.

“Up until (Tuesday), we had no omicron,” Hoffman said. “Before that, the vast majority of cases were delta plus plus. That’s a variant of delta plus.”

She said the majority of current cases are among people who are not vaccinated, and noted that the number of hospitalizations is going up.

“It’s still very early (in winter),” she said. “People are going inside. People are still gathering, and people aren’t wearing masks.”

Hoffman said vaccines are what is needed.

“The vaccine (manufacturers) never said … it would prevent COVID,” she said. “They said it would reduce the morbidity and mortality of COVID, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

The vaccine does work, she said.

“It’s doing what it said it would,” Hoffman said. “We cannot emphasize enough, as public health officials, how important it is to be vaccinated. If you are vaccinated and it’s been more than six months, please get your booster and wear your masks at indoor public spaces.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne News Editor Shelby Ashline and Reporter Chris Larabee contributed to this story.


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