BOSTON — People in Western Massachusetts, and the Berkshires in particular, frequently complain the region is being ignored by a state government headquartered at the other end of the commonwealth.
On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new program that will impact eight municipalities — none west of I-495.
But this is not the kind of list any town or city wants to make.
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito used their daily press briefing to announce that the commonwealth will offer targeted free COVID-19 testing sites in Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, and New Bedford.
All residents of those communities will be able to be tested for the novel coronavirus whether or not they have symptoms of COVID-19.
"We're launching this program in eight specific communities, where the prevalence of COVID-19 is above the statewide average and we've seen a decrease in testing since mid-April," Baker said. "The goal of this initiative is to provide widespread asymptomatic testing in an easy-to-access location within these communities."
The targeted testing program will begin on Friday and run through the middle of August, Baker said.
In his back-and-forth with the press at Wednesday's event, Baker was asked whether he planned to expand the targeted testing to Western Mass.
"If folks in Western Massachusetts start to have issues, absolutely," he said. "Western Mass was one of the first parts of Massachusetts that actually showed significant outbreaks, and then Western Mass got very low — low enough that I can remember at one point in time you asking me why we weren't opening up their economy before we opened other people's economies."
At one point, a testing site for frontline workers in all of Western Mass was set up at the Big E Fairgrounds in Springfield; the Berkshire has had two testing sites, both in Pittsfield.
The western third of the commonwealth overcame its early spikes and currently has numbers more in line with the state averages, which as of Wednesday included a weighted seven-day positive test rate of 2 percent, down from 4.2 percent as recently as June 8 and down 93 percent from mid-April.
As of Wednesday, Massachusetts has seen 8,028 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 104,961 confirmed cases. On Tuesday, the commonwealth reported 7,200 molecular tests, bringing its total to 1,157,023, Baker said.
But testing rates are down by 40 percent since the end of April in Chelsea and the other towns in line for the targeted testing program.
"Collectively, these communities make up approximately 9 percent of the Massachusetts population but have seen 27 percent of the commonwealth's positive tests in the past two weeks," he said. "The statewide positive test rate over the past two weeks, as I said before, is a little under 2 percent, but in these eight communities, 8 percent of the tests have been positive. That includes some individuals who have had multiple positive tests."
The Berkshires and Western Mass?
"They have continued to stay very low," Baker said. "I think the point I would make on this is we picked these [eight] places because they had a higher positive test rate than other places in Massachusetts and lower tests than they were actually getting — by a significant amount — back in April.
"If we start to see movement in any of these places, we'll make adjustments. That's part of what this program is all about."
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