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BY ELYSE CARMOSINO| January 7, 2021

NAHANT — COVID-19 testing has been suspended in Nahant because the town’s CARES Act funding is depleted, according to Town Administrator Antonio Barletta.

On Dec. 20, the federal government passed a new COVID-19 relief bill extending 2020’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act past its original Dec. 31 deadline, but without providing additional funding to towns and cities.

By that time, however, Barletta said the town — worried about losing its unused funding — had already scrambled to use the remainder of the $300,000 it had received to fight COVID-19, leaving Nahant in a bind as the number of virus cases on the North Shore continues to climb.

“We went from ‘hurry up and spend this money’ to (this),” Barletta said. “We didn’t have a ton left anyways, but let’s say we had 20 grand left. We said, ‘OK, we have to spend this 20 grand in the next two weeks,’ and then all of a sudden it was ‘nope, you have to make that 20 grand last a year.’”

Essex County currently has the highest case count in the commonwealth. Nahant, a town with a population of just under 3,500 people, has seen 156 cases since the pandemic began in March, including six deaths.

Barletta said his biggest concern is that the test site’s closing will force Nahant residents to go to farther communities for testing, reducing the likelihood that cases in asymptomatic people will be detected before spreading to other households.

“One of the best tools to help prevent transmission when you’re dealing with a disease that’s mostly asymptomatic is convenient, local, free testing,” he said. “If you don’t have symptoms, you’re not going to drive some place and spend your own money just to get a test.

“However, if it’s free and right down the street from your house, you might go and come up positive and then we can follow the guidelines in place to prevent potential transmission from that asymptomatic case.”

Detecting asymptomatic cases isn’t Barletta’s only concern, he said.

Towns are allowed to use their CARES Act funding in a number of different ways. In Nahant, the extra money has gone toward the salary of the town’s public health nurse, who has worked hundreds of overtime hours since March, helped pay for a health inspector to make sure local businesses are compliant with state-mandated safety regulations, and pay for personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders.

“There’s a huge stress on being able to go above and beyond what we can to provide these COVID-related services without this funding,” Barletta said.

Thanks to a recent donation from the Nahant Preservation Trust, residents will still have two more chances to receive free testing this Saturday and the next at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, located at 248 Nahant Road.

After that, the future of COVID testing opportunities for Nahant residents remains unclear.

“We are advocating for additional funding from our federal and state delegation,” Barletta said. “We have some sources of revenue in our own budget that we’re going to start leaning on, in order to continue to provide (COVID-related) services.”