Seeking to combat the spread of COVID-19, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Tuesday urged residents to spend Thanksgiving only with immediate household members. And he implored college students to stay home if they go there for the holiday and finish the remainder of the fall semester remotely.
“We don’t want to go backward,” Walsh said during his regular news conference outside Boston City Hall, in regard to the rising numbers of COVID cases.
Walsh said he does not want to shut the city down again, as it was in the early stages of the pandemic. But he did not discount that possibility.
“The last resort would be to shut things down right now, and we’re headed toward that last resort,” he said.
The mayor said the city’s positivity rate for coronavirus tests for the week ended Nov. 12 was 9.6 percent, a huge spike from the summer averages of 1.8 percent to 2.8 percent.
“Every metric tells us that we’re in the midst of a significant and concerning increase of COVID activity here in the city and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Walsh said. “The daily cases we’re seeing are starting to look like the numbers we saw near our peak in April and May here in the Commonwealth and in the city of Boston. Hospital admissions, however, are not at that level, but they have increased over time.”
City officials, the mayor said, are looking at what steps can be taken “to further limit the risk of transmission here.”
For the holiday, Walsh urged people to connect with family members outside of their immediate households online, if possible, and said they should wear face coverings whenever they’re not eating or drinking. In-person gatherings should be limited to 10 people.
College students who travel home for Thanksgiving should remain home for the rest of the semester, he said, and finish their work remotely. The mayor thanked Emerson College and Suffolk University for announcing previously that they’ll go all-remote after Thanksgiving, as well as Boston University and Harvard for instructing students not to return to campus for the rest of the semester if they go home.
Walsh urged all colleges and universities in the city to take “similar steps.”
“We need to stay focused on turning this trend around,” he said of the rising COVID-19 numbers.
The mayor was joined at the briefing by Marty Martinez, the city’s health and human services chief, who said that starting this week, the city will release data each Wednesday and Saturday on six key virus metrics to help residents understand the current state of virus transmission.
The six metrics, Martinez said, will include the average number of daily cases; community positivity rate; number of tests performed, on average, each day; ICU capacity; overall number of hospital beds available, whether in medical or ICU wings; and average number of people visiting emergency rooms with COVID-like symptoms.
Boston is averaging about 225 new COVID-19 cases per day, according to the authorities. At a roundtable discussion after the City Hall news conference, Martinez said hospitals in the city were at 81 percent capacity for nonsurgical ICU beds. In the spring, ICU capacity topped 125 and 130 percent, he said. Passing 95 percent capacity would be “a cause of concern for us,” he said — “because we would start to see more severe impacts and start to question whether hospitals can take care of everyone that they need to.”
East Boston continues to have the highest positivity rate of any neighborhood in the city. For the week ended Nov. 12, it was 18.5 percent, Martinez said.
Governor Charlie Baker also addressed the pandemic during a separate briefing Tuesday at the State House, saying the state is making progress in expanding its testing capacity.
“I think you’re also going to see some new products come into the marketplace that are going to make it possible for people to significantly expand testing without necessarily having to use the pathways and the routes that we’ve used traditionally to make this happen,” Baker said.
The governor was pressed on continued reports of unemployed residents experiencing delays in receiving their benefits.
“The biggest challenge I think we face at this point in time with respect to unemployment insurance generally is the continued and ongoing effort of a lot of really bad actors to fraud the system,” Baker said. “And this is not just true in Massachusetts. This is now true in all 50 states. And it creates all kinds of problems.”
Baker said it is critical that officials determine the veracity of each application.
Officials have to "get to the point where we actually cull out the people who are legitimate and make sure that they can then work their way through the process and get the unemployment benefit that they’re entitled to,” Baker said. “That does add a few days.”