Local doctors advocate on Beacon Hill for widespread testing for coronavirus

BOSTON — Is the state prepared for a coronavirus epidemic? That was the topic of a hearing Wednesday afternoon on Beacon Hill. Some doctors there testified that there may be more cases in our area than we think.

That is owing to the fact that in many, particularly children, COVID-19 presents as minimally symptomatic. We won’t know if they have the virus unless they’re tested. And soon, many more in Massachusetts will be.

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“We want you to know that [in] Massachusetts, [the] risk of COVID 19 remains low,” said Monica Bharel, the Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Public Health.

That may be true, but is it as low as public health officials claim? Maybe not, says one doctor who testified before the Joint Committee on Public Health.

“I think most epidemiologists would agree that the most likely scenario is that there are people who are transmitting this virus in many cities around the U.S. and many countries around the world,” said Dr. Michael Mina of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who added that there are likely many asymptomatic cases.

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Dr. Mina is one of those who advocate for widespread testing for coronavirus because it’s important to understand, he says, how the virus spreads.

“As an example, if we thought this was a virus that was transmitting through children, closing down schools is an obvious area to focus on to limit spread,” Dr. Mina said, emphasizing that he was just using an example. “And we might not know that unless we were doing surveillance of those children.”

Right now, the FDA is limiting testing to those who are sick, symptomatic or who have recently traveled to heavily infected areas. But officials expect more widespread testing is coming soon.

“I expect, in days to weeks, we’ll see hospital laboratories be able to bring on testing and commercial laboratories be able to bring on testing,” said Dr. Larry Madoff of the Mass. Department of Public Health.