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With hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in Massachusetts at their highest levels since last winter, Gov. Charlie Baker is imploring all eligible vaccinated residents to get a booster shot — and for vaccine holdouts to jump on board — in order to stave off a winter surge and relieve the stress on strained hospitals.
“As the weather gets colder and as people continue to spend more time indoors, we know we’ll continue to see more cases of COVID here in Massachusetts,” Baker said during a press conference Friday afternoon in Brockton, after getting his own booster shot.
“But the science on this one’s clear,” he said. “The vaccines do help keep people from getting very sick from this virus, and the boosters provide an extra layer of protection.”
His comments came just before state health officials reported Friday that Massachusetts had surpassed 1,000 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 for the first time since February. And in the week since Thanksgiving, the state is averaging over 3,000 cases a day — the first time that’s happened since January.
Baker told reporters that the administration doesn’t have “any plans at this point in time to change any of our existing rules that are in place,” when asked about the sharp increase in hospitalizations or the emergence of the quickly spreading omicron variant.
Since August, dozens of cities and towns have already reimplemented their own local mask mandates for indoor public places. And some top public health experts are now sounding the alarm about the concerning convergence of factors.
Baker didn’t rule out a statewide indoor mask mandate Friday. But he said he wanted to wait until more clear research emerges about the omicron variant’s transmissibility and resistance to vaccines, noting that “a number of people whose opinions I respect” think the vaccines will be effective against omicron.
Baker urged people “not to jump to conclusions about it one way or the other.”
“There’s too much of that and there has been too much of that in my opinion since the beginning of COVID,” he said.
Baker said the administration’s main message remains: “get vaccinated and get boosted, and get tested.” He also applauded President Joe Biden’s move Thursday to require insurance companies to reimburse purchases of over-the-counter rapid COVID-19 tests.
“I’ve been banging that drum as hard as I possibly can on every call we’ve had with the White House for months now,” Baker said.
While the administration has not publicly entertained any of the sweeping COVID-19 restrictions that were characteristic of the first year of the pandemic due to the state’s high vaccination rate, they did order Massachusetts hospitals with limited bed capacity to cut back on non-urgent, scheduled procedures, beginning this week.
Baker, however, reiterated that the reason for the order was primarily due to staffing shortages and seasonal increases in hospital visits that had been exacerbated by a surge in patients who delayed care for other ailments during the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of factors at work there,” he said. “But the biggest thing we could do to reduce our COVID hospitalization rate is for the people who aren’t vaccinated to get vaccinated.”
Baker pointed to state data showing that, despite making up over 70 percent of the Massachusetts population, fully vaccinated residents account for 367 — or 37 percent — of the state’s 1,003 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
He estimated that if the 636 unvaccinated patients had been vaccinated instead, the state’s hospitalization rate would drop by 50 percent.
“The vaccines clearly make a difference,” Baker said.
Still, he doesn’t want residents to stop after two shots.
Researchers have found that additional booster shots — particularly using the mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer — increase fully vaccinated individuals’ immune response by more than tenfold. While less is known about their effectiveness against the new omicron variant, some experts believe the strengthened immunity may be enough to offset the virus’s mutations.
Baker, who received his third dose of the Pfizer vaccine Friday, noted his last visit to the Shaw’s Center in Brockton was to announce the state’s initial timeline for expanding vaccine eligibility to all residents over the age of 16 by April 19. Since last December, the state has fully vaccinated close to 4.9 million residents.
“For many of those residents, it’s now time to get a booster shot to provide added protection against COVID,” Baker said.
Since Nov. 18, all Massachusetts residents over the age of 18 have been eligible to get a booster shot once they’ve gone six months past their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two months past their dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
So far, Baker says there have been 1.1 million booster shots administered to Massachusetts residents. However, the state’s archived vaccination reports suggest that somewhere around 3.7 million residents should be eligible by now.
And that number will only grow as more people phase into eligibility.
“We know there are many more to be delivered,” Baker said.
Officials say there are currently over 1,000 locations in Massachusetts where boosters are available — from retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to local clinics run by health departments to hospitals and community health centers to primary care offices and urgent care centers to state-supported mobile sites.
Baker said the state does not face the same vaccine supply constraints as it did during the first few months of the initial vaccine rollout, although he acknowledged that the recent spike in demand for boosters may make a nearby appointment hard to immediately secure.
“It may take a few tries or you might have to push out that appointment for a week or two to get it scheduled,” he said “This is a fairly recent phenomenon.”
Baker added that the state has been working with local officials to increase the number of booster locations, including “some additional high-volume sites” planned to open later this month.
At one point during the press conference, Baker joked about the number of times he found himself repeating the point.
“If you’re eligible for a booster, get a booster,” he said. “It’s the best thing you can do for yourself, your friends, your families, and your neighbors.”
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