UMass to offer free COVID-19 testing to local residents through March

Community testing will begin Dec. 14

The+University+tests+thousands+of+students%2C+faculty+and+staff+a+week+at+the+Mullins+Center+on+campus.

Katherine Mayo / Daily Collegian

The University tests thousands of students, faculty and staff a week at the Mullins Center on campus.

By Will Katcher, Assistant News Editor

The University of Massachusetts will offer free asymptomatic COVID-19 testing to area residents beginning Dec. 14, the school announced Monday afternoon.

The new program will be made possible by a $5 million grant from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, according to a statement from the University.

“We are thankful for the partnership with UMass Amherst to stand up this new free testing site, providing Massachusetts residents with an additional resource to get tested in Hampshire County,” Baker said in the school’s released statement.

Testing at the school’s Public Health Promotion Center, based out of the Mullins Center, has dropped off since students departed on Nov. 20, when classes ended. UMass will use the space to provide as many as 1,000 daily tests to the local community, officials said.

“We have one of the biggest asymptomatic testing centers in the Commonwealth, so we’re very prepared to act quickly to provide a public health service,” said Jeffrey Hescock, UMass’ executive director of emergency management.

Appointments, which can be booked online, are required for those who want to be tested, school officials stressed in a Monday afternoon press conference. Any adults and children over age 10 are eligible.

“This is an asymptomatic site, so we ask that you not come in if you are symptomatic or have been in contact with someone who is,” said Ann Becker, UMass’ public health director.

The community testing process is expected to be similar to student testing from the fall — a quick self-administered nasal swab with results available between 24 and 48 hours later.

All community appointments will be walk-in, officials said. Students were allowed to schedule drive-thru testing during the fall semester, but the option will not be offered during the winter.

Samples will be processed at the newly-opened testing lab at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS). The on-campus COVID-19 testing lab began operation in November and will be bolstered by the state grant, which officials said will improve the machinery used to process testing samples.

UMass uses RNA extraction/qPCR tests — “the gold standard” — due to its low rate of false positive or negative results, said IALS director Peter Reinhart.

To orchestrate this testing program, the lab requires a good deal of expensive equipment and the staff to operate it, he said. Both are now possible with the state money.

This announcement comes as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state and country. Massachusetts is currently experiencing thousands of new cases each day.

“By expanding testing capacity, particularly during this holiday season as cases are rising, the university and the Commonwealth are taking decisive action at a critical moment in the fight against this pandemic,” UMass President Martin Meehan said in a statement.

Community testing will be offered Monday through Thursday until Jan. 21, when UMass will scale it back as students return to the area for the spring semester. Testing for local residents will continue alongside student testing through March 15 at a limited capacity.

The testing center will continue to be staffed by UMass’ nursing and public health students, who worked there this fall.

“They are really excited to be part of the solution for our community,” Becker said. “It’s what [they’re] trained to do.”

“We’re very distinctly positioned to be able to do this. The investment the state has made in us and the research and administrative capacity the state has invested in us, this is a perfect opportunity to improve public health,” said campus spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski. “This is one of the advantages of having UMass Amherst as a major public research institution in [the state].”

Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @will_katcher.