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COVID-19 cases in Boston are again on the rise, with positive tests up 15 percent and hospitalizations up 28 percent in the last two weeks, as the city settles into the expected virus winter surge.
“COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are up, while vaccination among some of our most vulnerable populations is lagging behind,” Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, told reporters at a City Hall press conference on Monday. “To address this threat, Boston is focused on four key strategies: increasing access to vaccination and boosters, increasing testing, enhancing health communication, and doubling down on prevention.”
So are the four pillars of the city’s approach as it works to fend off swelling case counts, especially with the omicron variant of the virus now looming in Massachusetts.
“Robust, immunologic, and clinical data are not yet available to provide conclusive evidence of whether omicron will be more transmissible, cause more severe disease, or circumvent protection covered by our current vaccines,” Ojikutu said. “But we do have some concerns.”
As part of the city’s response to the ever-evolving virus, Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday also announced the creation of the COVID-19 Advisory Committee, a 17-member group of public health professionals and leaders from across sectors, from private industry to the arts.
Together, the members will advise the Wu administration as officials “look to take every possible action to end the pandemic,” Wu said.
“We’re now entering year three of this public health emergency with new variants continuing to emerge, and it is clear that we need leadership from every sector to help us take on this public health crisis with immediate steps,” the mayor said.
As of Nov. 30, the city saw an average of 191.6 new cases per day — significantly higher than the BPHC’s goal of 67.9 cases or less, but still far below its “threshold for concern” of 339.7 daily cases, according to the BPHC.
The city’s total case count was 88,990 cases as of Monday.
Boston also saw an average of 137.9 hospitalizations with adult patients suffering from COVID symptoms per day as of Dec. 2. The BPHC’s threshold is 200 per day.
Ojikutu said approximately two-thirds of those hospitalized are unvaccinated individuals.
Here’s how the city is combatting the virus amid the winter surge:
Ojikutu said the city must do more to increase testing accessibility in Boston’s hardest-hit communities and, to that end, announced the city will be providing 20,000 rapid antigen, at-home test kits for free in neighborhoods at high risk and where barriers to purchasing kits remain high.
“Each kit will include information on what to do if you test positive and direct you to contact the commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau to report your positivity and to receive additional instructions,” she said.
Officials will also be distributing masks.
According to Ojikutu, the City of Boston is expanding access to COVID-19 vaccines by opening several “higher-capacity” clinics intended to vaccinate more people at a single time and supplement the services provided at the seven existing walk-in clinics sponsored by the city.
Four of the clinics will be held on Dec. 11, Dec. 18, and on two, not-yet-announced Saturdays in January.
“The first of these larger capacity clinics will be held at Vine Street Community Center in Roxbury. We’re also setting up a site here at City Hall on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Ojikutu said.
“We will announce additional locations throughout the week and for more information, call 311 or go to boston.gov,” she added.
Through a partnership with Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Tufts Medical Center, Boston Public Schools students and their families will also see increased access to clinics at schools throughout December and January, Ojikutu said.
“Additionally, the commission is providing dedicated clinical leadership through Dr. Sarimer Sánchez, director of our Infectious Disease Bureau,” she said. “She will essentially be detailed to BPS to work on understanding and developing new policies regarding COVID-19 mitigation in our schools and scaling up the school vaccination program.”
Ojikutu also said the city is “re-doubling” its efforts to put out more information about vaccines and booster shots.
On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his city will require private sector employers to issue vaccine mandates for their employees — a first in the nation move to combat the virus.
Asked about that decision, Wu, who has said Boston should consider a vaccine mandate for indoor activities, said the new advisory group will be considering various potential next steps.
“We’re very much in an urgent situation in Boston and so everything has to be on the table,” Wu said. “I think we see the actions of our partner and sister cities reflecting just how much we all need to be taking action.
“Omicron, unfortunately, will not be the last variant that we see, and our responsibility in city government now is to look at the data, bring together the wisdom across all sectors in our community, and ensure that we are following the best available recommendations from our community members and taking swift action,” she added.
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