WHITMAN — Four hundred residents managed to obtain free COVID-19 at-home test kits at a town-sponsored distribution Friday, Dec. 31 at Whitman Middle School.
Fire Chief Timothy Clancy noted that the Board of Selectmen had discussed to possibility of operating a drive-through testing site at its Dec. 21 meeting, but when the logistics of supply and demand were considered, it was “pretty obvious that we were going to be unable to pull that together in a timely manner.”
Each vehicle was given a test kit containing two tests.
A very limited number of kits were also distributed to the Housing Authority and Meals on Wheels volunteers to distribute among the elderly and homebound.
“I think we should be proud, honestly, of the fact that we’re one of very few municipalities, to my knowledge, that were able to locate some at-home rapid tests for people who had not received them for free from the state government,” Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said Monday, Jan. 3. “We … as a team located some tests, got them here quickly and that distribution happened pretty successfully on Friday.”
Heineman said the 400 given out were “not as many as we’d like,” but that as many as the town could get delivered on short notice.
“We have some more on the way,” he said. “We’ve been desperately trying to get some indication from the manufacturer about when they will be received.”
County Treasurer Thomas O’Brien has also sent word to Whitman officials that the County Commissioners approves about 100,000 home test kits late last week to be sent to county communities. Whitman could receive as many as 10,000 kits.
The state had recently made kits available to cities and towns with a higher population of people living below the federal poverty line instead of where the pandemic spike was worst, such as Bristol and Plymouth counties. Test kits at pharmacies have been selling for about $25 each.
“This has been a whole effort from the town of Whitman,” Selectman Justin Evans said. “Selectmen voted to authorize this last week and gave sort of control of the operation to the fire chief [and] to the health department and let them (Selectmen”) authorize the spending but let them figure out how to make it happen.”
Discussions taking place between town officials in the interim led to the decision to buy home testing kits to distribute as the best way to address the immediate need.
The distribution plan was modified from a plan retired Fire Chief Timothy Grenno had mapped out for a potential drive-through vaccination site more than a year ago, but which was never needed.
“It took a little bit of an effort to acquire what we did,” Clancy said. “To get those kits that day was a solid eight-plus hours on the internet. We found them.”
Cars were allowed onto Corthell Avenue only and directed through a series of stops to show proof of residency, obtain a control number for their vehicle windshield and a flier on tests result and booster clinic information before being directed around to the rear of the school. The fliers also asked recipients to inform the Board of Health if they receive a positive test result.
“We have checks and double-checks,” Clancy said. “We’re trying to do as many people in town as is possible without inconveniencing anyone. People don’t want to be sitting in line for three or four hours only to be told, ‘Hey, we don’t have any more.’”
Residents were funneled into one of three lanes where the control number was retrieved and they were handed test kits. The vehicles exited out onto Hogg Memorial Drive.
Police Chief Timothy Hanlon said there was no estimate as to how many people would show up to the distribution event as he helped check people in.
“There’s no way to predict that,” Hanlon said.
“It’s working so far,” Clancy said an hour into the two-hour event. “We sat down to figure out where we had an access for in and out. We’ve learned from some of the other communities around us that have had some difficulties handing these out. You need to have traffic flow. You need to have it designed so the traffic just keeps moving.”
Nothing about COVID is free from controversy of some kind, however, and the number of kits available in relation to demand in Whitman raised an issue on social media.
“When Whitman was not selected to receive tests from the state, we sourced our own with American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds and distributed them with the help of Fire, Police, WEMA, CERT, [the] Board of Health and the DPW,” Evans posted on Instagram later that day.
A reply to Evans’ Instagram post expressed frustration with the number of residents who showed up to line up their vehicles long before the 9 a.m. start time.
“I was all the way back in the line when they said there were no more [test kits],” one man wrote. “Thank God I found some at Walgreen’s in Fall River.”
He complained that, as a taxpayer, he felt it should mean he would be able to obtain a kit at the residents-only distribution Whitman held.
“We have more on order and plan more distribution events,” Evans replied. “But this was all we could get [with] rush shipping before the end of school vacation.”
Some residents have had success in obtaining the kits at CVS, where customers are directed to inquire at the front counter.
“We’re still on a steady increase in our percentage numbers,” Clancy said. He has consulted with health officials and has found that positivity numbers did not take into account the number of home tests being performed already.
The vaccination rate, meanwhile has increased only by about 1 percent, more or less, according to Clancy. It’s hard to track because people also receive vaccinations when they travel.
With so many showing up for test kit distribution, is there a drive-through test site in the future?
“As of right now, we have no plans for a drive-through testing site,” Clancy said. “We’re doing this instead of, because the logistics of the drive-through test site … It became apparent it was going to be very more complex.”
He said there is a plan in place for it, but the logistics of it were difficult.
“[With] this, we have a good idea — there’s a good plan from the team to get this to run through,” he said.