Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and six other governors of Northeastern states are urging colleges and universities to provide free testing for any students planning to travel for Thanksgiving.
The migration of college students returning home from campuses around the state and the country for Thanksgiving and the possibility they could bring COVID-19 with them has public health officials "very concerned," Baker said as he announced new guidance for colleges and universities in the Bay State.
He said Massachusetts wants colleges and universities to make testing available to all students planning to leave campus for Thanksgiving within 72 hours of their departure. If a student tests positive, they should isolate in university housing for COVID-positive students, Baker said.
"Today we're urging everybody to make a difficult choice this Thanksgiving. If we treat this year just like we treat every other Thanksgiving, it's quite likely that it will trigger a significant spread. And we know that that leads to serious illness for many and in rare cases death, especially among our senior citizens," Baker said.
The guidelines for higher education institutions were "designed to ensure students are leaving campus, where they're often in communal spaces and with peers, free of the virus," he said. "Hopefully it'll help prevent thousands of students from traveling around the state and over state lines to potentially infect their family members and loved ones with this virus when they return home."
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"At Boston College, we are testing all of our students this week prior to Thanksgiving travel," that school said in a statement. "Approximately half of our students will be returning to their home states for Thanksgiving and taking their classes and final exams remotely."
Later Wednesday, Baker announced in a joint statement that Massachusetts is among seven states whose governors are encouraging schools to test any students before leaving for Thanksgiving and to have anyone who tests positive isolate on campus.
The other governors taking part include Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, Ned Lamont of Connecticut, Andrew Cuomo of New York, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and John Carney of Delaware.
"The region is experiencing a surge in COVID cases and a surge in the serious health impacts this disease brings with it. Working together on travel and higher education policies like these, states can have a bigger impact on COVID spread as students travel for the holidays," Baker said in the statement. "Gathering with friends and family significantly increases the risk of spreading the virus and while testing and isolation guidelines can help slow the spread, it is up to everyone to wear a mask and avoid gathering indoors with people outside of your household."
"As everyone predicted, cases are rising as temperatures drop, and New York is not immune. With the holidays approaching, we are fighting 'living room spread' from small gatherings in private homes – and adding college students' interstate travel will be like pouring gasoline on a fire," said Cuomo. "We know this virus does not respect borders, which is why governors from across the region are working together to stop the spread. Colleges and universities have to do their part by testing all students before they leave, informing them about quarantine rules, and keeping classes online between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. We beat back the COVID beast in the spring, and by working together we can do it once again this winter."
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley also announced the launch of a new COVID-19 testing program in public schools. The program will kick off in early December in 134 school districts. A parent or guardian's consent will be required prior to administering any tests.
The rapid test kits will be provided to the districts at no cost. If a student starts showing any symptoms of illness, they can be given the test which produces a result in about 15 minutes.
"This test allows anyone with an onset of symptoms at school to be rapidly tested and we can find out those results in minutes," Riley said.
If the test indicates the student has been exposed to the coronavirus, they can be sent home and advised to take a more exact test to confirm that they have COVID-19.
Parents will have to sign off before their child is tested, officials said.
"Oh definitely. I would love to know, that way I could help them get treated quickly and try to get them taken care of," one parent said Wednesday. "It would be nice to know the reliability of them."
Also on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said a message from Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel will be sent to 4.5 million phone lines in Massachusetts on Thursday "reminding residents of the increased risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 over the coming holiday season."
Baker reminded people of the state's 10-person limit for private indoor gatherings, its restrictions on travelers from all states but Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Hawaii, its stay-at-home advisory and mask-wearing guidance.
"And at this point, folks should be going to school, or to work, and going home," he said. "And if people abide by these very simple rules and concepts and do it consistently, they can allow us to keep everything open, our schools and our economy. And it can give us the kind of holiday season that I think everybody is hoping for."
Pressure on Massachusetts hospitals is continuing to mount as the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 steadily rises. There were 835 people reported hospitalized Tuesday because of confirmed cases of COVID-19. That's up from 500 a month ago. Of those hospitalized Tuesday, nearly 160 were in intensive care units.
On Tuesday, there were 20 newly confirmed coronavirus deaths and more than 2.260 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19. The new deaths pushed the state's confirmed COVID-19 death toll to 10,130 and its confirmed caseload to more than 186,700. The true number of cases is likely higher because studies suggest some people can be infected and not feel sick.
The number of probable or confirmed COVID-19 deaths reported in long-term care facilities rose to 6,610.
State House News Service contributed to this report.