Boston health officials are issuing a dire COVID warning ahead of New Year’s Eve

Boston health officials are issuing a dire COVID warning ahead of New Year’s Eve

Public health officials in Boston issued a stark COVID-19 warning Friday ahead of this weekend’s New Year’s Eve celebration, saying rising levels of the coronavirus and flu are expected to continue into the New Year.

The Boston Public Health Commission’s warning comes after local school administrators asked students and staff to wear masks when they return from winter break next week. And just as hospitals are experiencing “significant pressure”, the Commission said, hundreds of thousands are expected to flock to the city this weekend for First Night events.

“We are experiencing a significant increase in viral wastewater concentrations and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 along with a continued high number of flu cases and hospitalizations. We expect this trend to continue until January,” said the city’s Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu. “Our hospitals are already under great pressure. Indoor masking and vaccinations are strongly recommended and will protect you from serious illness and support our health system.”

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 recorded since February 2021, according to the commission.

The concentration of COVID-19 in local wastewater has also increased by 61% in the past week and 78% in the past two weeks. It comes as the state Department of Public Health he reported on Thursday 8,327 new cases, 361 hospitalizations related to COVID, and 113 deaths related to the virus during 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 emphasized that the new policy is not a mandate.

“This is our request and expectation of students and staff, not a mandate — that will be in place during the school day on school premises and on school buses,” she said, adding, “no one will be disciplined or sent home if they refuse wear a mask.”

Skipper said the previous effects of significant understaffing, student absences and the loss of “critical learning time” led to the decision to change the school’s policy.

Students were also asked to get tested for COVID-19 on the evening of Jan. 3 or the morning of Jan. 4, before the school day begins. Staff have been asked to get tested before returning to work on January 3.

This time last year, Skipper said, Boston schools experienced the biggest wave of COVID-19, resulting in absenteeism that made it “almost impossible” for all schools to be open. A daily average of 1,200 staff members 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 diseases disproportionately affect black and brown families in our city,” Skipper said in a statement. “While this is not a mandate, we really rely on everyone to work together to follow our interim protocol to ensure that we are collectively doing our part to reduce the risk of exposure for our students and staff in an effort to keep everyone as safe as we can.”

Citywide, health officials said, use of the new divalent booster Omicron remains low. Eighty-one percent of residents are fully vaccinated, but only 13% have received a new booster, leaving them “vulnerable to a breakthrough infection,” the commission said.

“The new boosters are critical to maintaining the broadest level of protection against the COVID-19 virus and its variants,” officials said in a statement. “[The commission] strongly encourages everyone 6 months and older to get a bivalent booster as soon as possible to reduce the risk of infection and serious illness.”

And while Boston is grappling with rising COVID numbers, it’s also dealing with worrisome flu rates, the commission said. Since October 1, there have been 4,296 confirmed cases of the flu, including 739 between December 17 and 23.

The flu peak came “much earlier than usual,” the Boston Public Health Commission said, and was “significantly” higher than last year. Only 38% of the state’s residents received the flu shot this year, according to state data.

“The 2022 flu season has so far been of particular concern,” the Commission said.

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