COVID

As COVID surges again, Boston hospitals are not — so far — strained like they were amid omicron

"They're not experiencing that strain."

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission, speaks at City Hall in December David L Ryan/Globe Staff
COVID

As Boston weathers another surge of COVID-19 cases, the city’s largest hospital systems have so far not felt the strain quite like what they experienced last winter — but officials are nonetheless concerned about rising cases, according to Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

Data from the BPHC shows the number of occupied ICU beds sat at 89.4 percent as of Tuesday — below 95 percent, the city’s threshold of concern. Meanwhile, the city’s positivity rate hit 11.5 percent — significantly over the 5 percent threshold — on Monday, when the most recent data was available.

Although hospitalization rates have often lagged behind the reporting of new cases during the pandemic, even as cases have risen in recent weeks, Boston hospitals have not been strained to the extent they were earlier this year.

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“When we talk to our hospital partners, the indication that we’ve gotten from our large hospital systems is essentially that they are not experiencing the kind of strain that they experienced at the peak of the winter omicron [surge] in January,” Ojikutu said in an interview with Boston.com on Wednesday. “They’re not experiencing that strain.”

There are several reasons for why that is, including the increase of available therapeutics for COVID, Ojikutu said. There is now antiviral therapy available that is “very effective in keeping people out of the hospital,” she said.

“I think it’s also the fact that we do have natural and vaccine immunity,” she said. “We have 73 percent of people who are fully vaccinated and 54 percent of whom are boosted. Therefore, you know, they may be sick, but they may be coming in with less severe illness.”

But city health officials remain concerned that hospitalized cases could tick up even more so and are “very concerned” about COVID activity in Boston right now, Ojikutu said.

Data collected by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority of the Boston area’s wastewater shows virus levels in wastewater are on-par with, if not higher than, those during the 2020-2021 winter surge.

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Ojikutu, like others, is also concerned case data is not reflective of the entirety of virus spread, as many at-home tests often go unreported.

“We’re in this season of events and graduations and a lot of them are indoors and a lot of them are large gatherings,” Ojikutu said. “People aren’t necessarily wearing masks and… most places aren’t mandating masking. So that’s a concern.”

Mayor Michelle Wu said Monday, however, she has no immediate plans to bring back a mask mandate. Her administration previously rolled out the regulation for indoor public places but later dropped it in March.

In February, Wu said her decision making around lifting the mandates would be based on three core metrics: Boston would need less than 95 percent of ICU beds occupied; less than 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day; and a community positivity rate below 5 percent, as defined by the BPHC’s seven-day moving average.

Asked on Wednesday whether the city is still using that criteria to determine whether mandates should be re-instituted, Ojikutu said the BPHC is looking at “all the data” it makes available on its COVID dashboard.

“The idea is not that a switch is necessarily flipped — this is a process,” Ojikutu said. “We’re analyzing, we’re bringing in the experts who truly understand what’s happening and we definitely make well-considered decisions.”

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Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed most of Massachusetts at a “high” COVID community level.

The CDC recommends people residing in those areas — which include Boston — should wear a “well-fitting” mask when indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status.

Some health experts have also said leaders should reconsider mask requirements once again.

Public health experts and community leaders in the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity on Wednesday called on state officials and public agencies to reinstate precautionary measures as cases rise again.

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