Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that starting this week the state will begin distributing over 2.1 million free COVID-19 rapid at-home tests to communities across Massachusetts to help with the rise in infections and as many residents begin to gather indoors for the holidays.
He said the state will start by focusing on the 102 communities with the highest proportion of families at or below the poverty level [click here for the full list]. The at-home tests will be in addition to the 100,000 tests a day already being conducted at 1,000 sites across Massachusetts.
"The goal here is to help those families who face the greatest financial hardship and might have difficulty obtaining rapid tests at a pharmacy," Baker said. "This will make a real difference here in the state."
The move comes after states like New Hampshire have taken similar steps to send rapid antigen tests directly to residents, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced last week that she would be sending 20,000 tests into select neighborhoods.
The tests will be distributed starting Tuesday by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard. Baker said it will probably take four to five days to get them out to everyone.
"These tests will be especially helpful as we head into the holiday season," he said. "Residents will be able to use them so they can safely gather with family and friends."
Baker also said the state is working with test manufacturers to make available bulk, cheap purchasing deals for every city and town in Massachusetts.
"This is not just a one time distribution of a one time test," he said.
The state spent $10 million on the tests from iHealth Labs, and will seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
iHealth Partner and COO Jack Feng gave NBC10 Boston an exclusive interview in which he claimed his company's COVID-19 tests are a “game changer.”
"We wanted to provide our community with instant-result test kits with affordable prices,” he said.
The state made a deal with iHealth Labs, which is based in California with manufacturing in China by its parent company Andon Health, to deliver 2.1 million kits of two tests at $5 dollars each – a fraction of the $13.98 retail price tag.
“It's about making rapid tests available at a broad scale to communities that have in many cases, a lot of people who aren't going to be able to purchase these on their own, to make these tests available so that they can test themselves before they go to gatherings,” Baker said.
The iHealth Labs tests are made for ages 2 years and older and will provide results in under 15 minutes, Feng said.
The CEO noted their tests were approved for emergency use by the FDA on Dec. 5 with an accuracy of 94% for positive results and 98% for negative results.
"Rapid tests can help us to slow down the spreading and eventually can, you know, win this battle against this virus,” Feng said.
Once they arrive to Massachusetts it will be up to each city and town to decide how to distribute them, Baker said.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders briefed municipal leaders on the proposal Monday morning, and the administration will be relying on communities to get the tests into the hands of residents.
By the time all 2.1 million kits are shipped and distributed to the 102 municipalities, it may be until the end of the week before people begin to get their hands on one of the testing kits.
Come January, Baker hopes that each municipality can use federal funds to purchase more at the same rate.
Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said Massachusetts' new test distribution initiative is a good start, but the U.S. has a long way to go to catch up to other countries.
Over the weekend, he tweeted a photo of free rapid tests being given out at a liquor store in Canada.
"This is a public health catastrophe for this country. Making them very readily available is a crucial component of the pandemic response," he said.
People waiting in line to get tested in Everett on Monday couldn't wait for tests to be given out.
Amy DeAvilla was one of many who made the effort to bring her family to get tested for COVID-19 at the Everett site, especially since over-the-counter tests are costly and can be hard to find.
"To find a spot, the tests, and then to wait in line, it's a big deal,” said DeAvilla. “So, if you can just do it in the comfort of your home, that would be awesome."
For DeAvilla, having free tests at home would be a great help.
"I think it’s a great idea because people can just get tested before going to a holiday party and they will just know and it won't be a super spreader situation,” she added.
Despite spiking cases, Baker stressed Monday that Massachusetts is in a "far different position" than at this time last year due to the availability of the vaccine, booster shots and testing. And he said he has no plans to bring back a statewide mask mandate.
"As we enter the winter months, we know we'll continue to see new cases," he said. "But this winter is very different than last winter."
"We have far more tools at our disposal to fight COVID this time. Kids are staying in school, small businesses are open for holiday shopping. But COVID isn't going away anytime soon. If you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're eligible to get boosted, you should get boosted."
The governor's announcement Monday comes amid a winter COVID surge and as experts are scrambling to understand how the heavily mutated omicron variant will impact the future of the pandemic.
Politicians and medical experts in Massachusetts have been urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 amid growing concern over the omicron variant.
"It's setting up a perfect storm here in that many people may have declining antibodies, there's a new variant on the scene, the weather is turning colder, people are moving indoors and it's the holiday season," said Dr. Michael Misialek, a Newton-Wellesley Hospital pathologist.
In an episode of NBC10 Boston's weekly "COVID Q&A" series, local experts said they weren't sure if the omicron variant can evade the existing COVID-19 vaccines or natural antibodies.
More From the COVID Q&A Series
A panel of Boston-based doctors talking about everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.
Shortly afterward, the Pfizer vaccine was reported to be less effective against the omicron variant. A new study out of Israel confrimed that, six months after the initial Pfizer vaccine series, people had “almost no neutralizing ability” against the omicron variant. But, with a booster shot, the Pfizer vaccine provides significant protection against the variant.
Everyone over the age of 16 can now get a booster shot. Friday was the first day the federal government said 16- and 17-year-olds could receive a third shot.
Monday is also an important deadline for Baker to sign-off on a $4 billion spending plan using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and a surplus of state money from this year. Baker has said some parts of the Legislature's proposal, like establishing a 28 member advisory panel, would slow down the process of distributing the money.
He said at Monday morning's press conference that his office will have more information on the bill later in the day.
State House News Service contributed to this report.