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Boston health officials issue grim COVID warning ahead of New Year's Eve

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Boston public health officials issued a stern warning about COVID-19 on Friday ahead of New Year’s celebrations this weekend, saying an increase in coronavirus and flu levels is expected to continue into the New Year.

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

“We are experiencing a significant increase in the concentration of viral effluents and hospitalizations due to COVID-19, along with an ongoing high number of influenza cases and hospitalizations. We expect this trend to continue through January,” said city public health commissioner Dr. Bisola Ojikutu. “Our hospitals are already under significant pressure. Indoor masking and vaccination are highly recommended and will protect you from serious illness and support our healthcare system.”

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There were 296 new virus-related hospitalizations on Thursday, up 23% over the past week and 44% 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. That comes as the state Department of Public Health on Thursday reported 8,327 new cases, 361 COVID-related hospitalizations, and 113 virus-related deaths in 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 from students and staff, not a mandate – which will be in effect during the school day on school grounds and on school buses,” she said, adding, “no one will be disciplined or sent home if they refuse to do so. wear a mask”.

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Skipper said past impacts of significant staff shortages, student absences and loss of “critical learning time” led to the decision to change school policy.

Students were also required to take a COVID-19 test either the evening of January 3rd or the morning of January 4th, before the start of the school day. Employees were invited 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 outbreak of COVID-19, resulting in absences that made it “nearly impossible” to keep all schools open. A daily average of 1,200 employees and 8,500 students were absent last January, Skipper said.

The new policy, she said, will help reduce the spread of COVID-19, flu 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 are really counting on everyone to work together to follow our temporary protocol to ensure 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 much as possible. fast as possible. best we can.”

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Citywide, health officials said, uptake of the new Omicron bivalent booster remains low. Eighty-one percent of residents are fully vaccinated, but only 13% have received the new booster, leaving them “vulnerable to 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 persons aged 6 months and older to receive the bivalent booster as soon as possible to reduce the risk of infection and serious illness.”

And while Boston struggles with rising COVID tolls, it is also grappling with worrying flu rates, the commission said. As of October 1, there have been 4,296 confirmed cases of the flu, including 739 between December 17 and 23.

Peak flu levels arrived “much earlier than normal,” the Boston Public Health Commission said, and were “significantly” higher than last year. Only 38% of state residents have received a flu shot this year, according to state data.

“The 2022 flu season has been particularly concerning so far,” the commission said.