Two new COVID-19 testing sites on Cape Cod will be open by next week with the ability to test over 500 people a day and put a "dent" in what Sen. Julian Cyr and others have described as a testing desert in Barnstable County.
But Cyr and other Cape Cod officials said Tuesday that the testing to become available in Falmouth and Hyannis with the support of state and private funding will not be free to patients, contradicting Gov. Charlie Baker who on Monday described the sites as an expansion of the state's free "Stop the Spread" program.
Cyr said Baker shared some "inadvertently misleading information" at his press conference on Monday about the new testing that will be offered on Cape Cod. Though Baker accurately said it was being made possible by $550,000 earmarked by the Cape delegation in a state budget bill, he wrongly called it "an expansion of free testing," the senator said.
"We're pretty confident this is not going to meet all of the need," Cyr said on a conference call Tuesday with the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force to detail plans for the new testing sites. "Particularly the capacity we'll have in the Hyannis site is significant. But this is not a Stop the Spread site."
Sean O'Brien, director of the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment, said both sites should be open by early next week and will offer drive-through testing by appointment only. Officials said no one will be turned away if they cannot afford to pay and are not covered by insurance.
The Falmouth site at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds is expected to be open three days a week with the ability to test 50 to 75 people a day. The testing facility at the Melody Tent in Hyannis will run seven days a week, with hours expected to be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Cape Cod Health CEO Michael Lauf, whose company has partnered with Barnstable County to run the Hyannis site and contributed $250,000 to the effort, said the Melody Tent facility would be able to test up to 500 people a day, and would likely handle 1,500 to 2,000 tests a week. The Broad Institute in Cambridge will process all the new Barnstable County tests.
The state's "Stop the Spread" testing program has typically supported free testing for anyone from Massachusetts with or without symptoms of COVID-19 in hot-spot communities around the state, though many of those sites are concentrated around Greater Boston.
Legislators and public health officials on Cape Cod and in western Massachusetts have been clamoring for weeks for "Stop the Spread" sites to be added in their regions as the second surge has worsened and demand for testing has increased.
Baker on Monday announced new testing sites and partnerships in four counties, including Hampshire, Franklin, Berkshire and Barnstable counties. The administration said the new sites would build on its "Stop the Spread" program and enable state-run facilities to conduct 110,000 free tests each week.
But Cape Cod leaders said patients will still be required to pay for the tests to their ability, despite the state funding and the $375,000 in additional money contributed by the county and Cape Cod Health Care, which operates hospitals in Hyannis and Falmouth.
"Even though we have about a $1 million in revenue we have to make this money last over the next six months so we are going to be relying on a sliding fee scale," Cyr said, clarifying the governor's announcement.
Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who helped secure $300,000 for county testing in a July budget bill, said that for those who are not covered by insurance the test shouldn't cost more than $60, with less expensive options available. But officials later in the call tried to back away from a specific price ceiling as they said they were working through the numbers.
"We need more testing. That's clearly been a gap here in the region and the more able we are here to have this testing to track the spread of the virus and isolate people who are positive the more we are going to be able to slow down the spread of this disease," Fernandes said.
Neither the governor's office nor the administration's COVID-19 command center responded to requests for comment whether Baker misspoke on Monday about expanding free testing to Cape Cod.
Barnstable County set aside $125,000 for the testing effort and another $200,000 for testing in Barnstable County was included in the fiscal 2021 budget sent to Baker by the Legislature last week.
Officials said that the combination of state and private money, along with insurance claims and fees paid by patients, should enable them to continue testing at the two sites for the next six months, by which time they hope to be distributing vaccines to the general public.
On Cape Cod, new cases of COVID-19 have been climbing and the positive test rate of 3.99% exceeds the state average. Lauf said Cape Cod Health hospitals currently have 27 patients diagnosed with COVID-19.
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Cyr said lawmakers are still waiting for "guidance" as to whether the administration considers the Falmouth and Hyannis testing facilities official "Stop the Spread" sites, but said, "I suspect there will be an ongoing need for additional testing resources."
"This will certainly put a dent in the testing desert, but it remains to be seen what the demand is," Cyr said.