Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday announced the formation of a COVID-19 Advisory Committee, which is comprised of a group of 17 individuals with various backgrounds.
The Committee is chaired by Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission, and will “be charged with advising us as we look to take every possible action to end the pandemic,” Wu said on Monday.
As the news around the Omicron variant continues to circulate and the first case has been detected in Massachusetts, there is also an anticipated surge in COVID cases this holiday season, Wu said.
“I urge Bostonians to get tested, to get vaccinated, to get boosted, and to work with us to close these gaps so that every person has easy access to the public health tools they need,” she said.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said that both cases and hospitalizations are up in the city, “while vaccination amongst some of our most vulnerable populations is lagging behind.”
She said that “to address this threat, Boston is focused on four key strategies,” which include increasing access to both initial vaccines and boosters, increasing testing, “enhancing health communication,” and “doubling down on prevention.”
Boston’s citywide COVID positivity rate is 5.2 percent, which is up 15 percent from two weeks ago, Ojikutu said, with an “increase across most Boston neighborhoods and across all racial and ethnic groups.”
She said that about two thirds of people hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated.
“Let me make this clear,” she said. “Vaccination is critical to ending this pandemic.”
She also reminded residents that vaccines’ protection wanes over time, and so far, only 21 percent of fully vaccinated Bostonians have received a booster shot.
She also said there is a low vaccination rate among 5-11 year olds — only one-quarter of Bostonians ages 5-11 had received their first dose of the vaccine as of early December. She also talked about racial and economic disparities as it relates to vaccination in the city.
When it comes to the Omicron variant, Ojikutu said that the Massachusetts patient who was diagnosed with the variant was fully vaccinated and exhibited mild symptoms.
She said that while there is no conclusive evidence yet around Omicron’s transmissibility and ability to evade vaccines, but “we do have some concerns,” Ojikutu said, adding that there has been some evidence that the variant could increase the risk of reinfection in those who have already had the virus.
She said that the “ability to detect Omicron in Massachusetts is exceptional,” and the state has the ability to increase testing capacity as well.
Ojikutu said that residents should “remain vigilant, but calm,” and urged fully vaccinated residents to get their booster shots.
More vaccine clinics will be available throughout the city to increase access to vaccines, and in some locations, no appointments will be required. Additionally, there will be several “higher capacity sites” available as well, including at Vine Street Community Center in Roxbury and at City Hall.
“We need to increase our vaccination among children,” Ojikutu said, adding that increased vaccine clinics will be available at schools.
The city is also aiming to increase testing citywide, and will be providing 20,000 free rapid antigen home tests to residents in communities with high rates of COVID-19 and “high barriers” to purchasing at-home test kits. These tests will be distributed, along with face masks, during the holiday season.
“We need to redouble our efforts to prevent the spread of disease,” Ojikutu said, and the indoor mask mandate will remain. The city urges residents to continue washing their hands, distancing from others, and monitoring for COVID symptoms, as well as get a flu shot.
Ojikutu also said that increased information about vaccines and booster shots, especially when it comes to vaccines for children, will be communicated to residents.
“I believe that a return to normalcy and a brighter future are within reach,” she said. “Let’s work together to keep Boston and Bostonians safe and healthy.”