Boston public health officials issued a COVID-19 warning Friday ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations this weekend, saying rising levels of coronavirus and flu are expected to continue into the new year.
The warning from the Boston Public Health Commission comes as local school administrators have asked students and staff to wear masks when they return from winter vacation next week. And just as hospitals are experiencing “significant strain,” the commission said, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to flock to the city this weekend for First Night events.
“We are experiencing a significant increase in sewage virus concentration and hospitalizations due to COVID-19, as well as a continued high number of influenza cases and hospitalizations. We expect this trend to continue through January,” said the city’s public health commissioner, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu. “Our hospitals are already under significant pressure. Wearing a mask indoors and getting vaccinated is highly recommended and will protect you from serious illnesses and support our healthcare system.
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There were 296 new virus-related hospitalizations as of Thursday, a 23% increase over the past week and a 44% increase over the past two weeks. The total number of hospitalized patients and new hospital admissions are the highest numbers the city has seen since February 2021, according to the commission.
The concentration of COVID-19 in local sewage has also increased by 61% over the past week and 78% over the past two weeks. This comes as the state Department of Public Health on Thursday reported 8,327 new cases, 361 COVID-related hospitalizations and 113 virus-related deaths over the past week.
At the same time, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper sent a letter informing families that the district plans to adopt “temporary masking” between Jan. 4 and Jan. 13, though she stressed that the new policy was not a mandate.
“It is our request and our expectation of students and staff, not a mandate – which will be in effect during the school day on school premises and school buses,” she said, adding: “No one will be disciplined or sent home for refusing to wear a mask.”
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Skipper said the past impacts of significant staff shortages, student absences and the loss of “critical learning time” led to the decision to change the school’s policy.
Students were also asked to take a COVID-19 test on the evening of January 3 or the morning of January 4, before the start of the school day. Staff have been asked to take a test before returning to work on January 3.
It was around this time last year, Skipper said, that Boston schools experienced their biggest surge of COVID-19, resulting in absences that made it “almost impossible” to keep all schools open. A daily average of 1,200 staff and 8,500 students were absent last January, Skipper said.
The new policy, she said, will help reduce the spread of COVID-19, influenza and RSV.
“The data shows that these illnesses disproportionately impact black and brown families in our city,” Skipper said in a statement. “While this is not a mandate, we truly rely on everyone to work together to follow our temporary protocol to ensure that we are collectively doing our part to mitigate the risk of exposure for our students and staff in an effort to keep everyone safe as best we can.
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Around town, health officials said, uptake of the new Omicron-bivalent booster remains low. Eighty-one percent of residents are fully vaccinated, but only 13 percent have received the new booster, leaving them “vulnerable to breakthrough infections,” the commission said.
“The new boosters are essential to maintain the broadest level of protection against the COVID-19 virus and its variants,” officials said in a statement. “[The commission] strongly encourages all people aged 6 months and older to receive the bivalent booster as soon as possible to reduce their risk of infection and serious illness.
And as Boston grapples with rising COVID numbers, it also faces concerning flu rates, the commission said. Since October 1, there have been 4,296 confirmed cases of influenza, including 739 between December 17 and December 23.
Peak flu levels came “much earlier than normal”, the Boston Public Health Commission said, and were “significantly” higher than they were last year. Only 38% of state residents have received a flu shot this year, according to state data.
“The 2022 flu season has been of particular concern so far,” the commission said.
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