Cambridge is distributing 46,000 free Covid-19 rapid antigen test kits. (Photo: iHealth)

Racing to deal with exploding new Covid-19 infections, Cambridge started distributing 46,000 free Covid-19 rapid antigen test kits to organizations serving low-income residents on Monday in an extraordinarily quick effort to get the tests out before people gather to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The city hoped to finish delivery by the end of Tuesday, “getting tests into people’s homes ahead of the holidays,” City Manager Louis A. DePasquale told city councillors Monday.

On Tuesday the city reported 161 new cases, setting a pandemic record for a single day.

The state had announced Dec. 13 that it was giving 2.1 million test kits to cities and towns with the highest number of needy residents, but Cambridge didn’t receive any until Friday, just eight days before Christmas. Managers worked over the weekend to choose recipient organizations, bundle the kits, which come two to a box, and deliver them starting Monday, DePasquale said. The fire, police and Public Works departments as well as the city’s emergency services provider, ProEMS, brought the kits to the Cambridge Housing Authority, Transition House, the YWCA, other affordable-housing providers and others serving low-income residents, DePasquale said. Residents who came to the food pantry at the Cambridge Community Center Tuesday were offered a box.

The tests can be done at home and give results in 15 minutes. They can reliably identify people with enough Covid-19 virus to infect others, so health officials consider them vital to prevent infections if people test themselves before gathering with others or visiting someone who is especially vulnerable to the virus, such as an elderly relative. And though health officials still advocate vaccination to control the pandemic, two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or one shot of Johnson & Johnson doesn’t offer much protection against the highly contagious omicron variant, which now dominates cases in Massachusetts and nationwide, scientists have found. Boosters are necessary and even they prevent most but not all breakthrough infections, though experts say vaccines still protect against serious illness and death.

Getting tests in hands

As new cases of Covid-19 mount, the at-home rapid tests have become hard to get in drugstores and online. They are also expensive, at $24 per two-test box in most pharmacies. Meanwhile, lines and waits at the city’s free PCR test sites have grown gargantuan before the holidays. Councillor Marc McGovern said he “must have received six or seven emails over the last couple of days with people who said, ‘I waited an hour and a half and I left. I couldn’t wait any longer. I got a kid who’s freezing out here with me.’ Or ‘I’m a senior citizen, and I couldn’t wait there.’ And when that word starts to get out that the lines are two hours long and people aren’t going to go. They’re going to stop showing up.” (McGovern was a commenter on a Twitter video posted Monday by Nick “Big Milk” Surette showing long lines.)

 

McGovern proposed offering PCR tests and rapid tests at pop-up sites, and vice mayor Alanna Mallon suggested that the city work with rapid-test developers in Cambridge to get more tests at low prices. DePasquale and new chief public health officer Derrick Neal didn’t shoot down the ideas, and DePasquale said the city was considering distributing free rapid tests more broadly at firehouses and libraries.

Meanwhile, it may take more time to get the rapid tests from the state into the hands of residents. The Cambridge Housing Authority received 8,000 two-test boxes on Monday and expects to deliver them to CHA sites by Thursday, executive director Michael Johnston said. The city prepared a website and adapted a company video to explain how and why to use the test, but CHA was writing “a one-pager” to accompany the city’s material, Johnston said.

“We hope that residents do not take the test to just take the test,” he said. “Given the timing of the arrival of these tests, residents that plan to spend time over the holidays with family members that do not reside in their household should use these as a tool to stay safe, and this will be part of our message.”

How to take the test

Then there’s the question of how to take the test correctly. “They can be somewhat complex. You do have to make sure that you’re swabbing your nose in a particular way, and you have to have six drops. How do you know for sure there’s six drops – who’s counting it?” councillor Patty Nolan said. (Actually, the six drops pertain to another brand of rapid test, different from the one the city is distributing).

Chief public health officer Neal said the city had converted instructions from the test maker, IHealth, “to a fifth-grade comprehension level. So most populations can comprehend it,” The IHealth test requires users to swab both nostrils, put the swab into a tube filled with liquid, stir 15 times, remove the swab while squeezing the tube to compress liquid out of the swab, put three drops from the tube into a hole in a test card, then wait 15 minutes for results.

Johnston said managers at each public health site would distribute the tests to residents either door-to-door or at a central location. “Since we do not plan on dropping these kits at doorsteps and staff will either be knocking on doors or manning a distribution desk, residents will be able to ask questions about administering the tests and we will answer to the best of our ability. Once the tests are in hand, we won’t go away – we have site staff, a translation service and a team of service coordinators ready to assist and answer questions as they come up,” he said.