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Health officials prepare for a new challenge — snow

A cross country skier took to Boylston Street as snow continued to fall in Boston on Thursday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As the first major snowstorm approached the region, health officials on Wednesday prepared for the first weather-related challenge to the state’s COVID-19 testing system, which largely relies on a web of tented outdoor sites that will likely be shut down in high winds and heavy snowfall.

At least a half-dozen state testing sites from Holyoke to New Bedford to Hingham had already announced they would be closed Thursday, with the storm predicted to hammer the area with a foot or more of snow. Officials warned residents to expect further closures.

The testing site closures come at a tenuous time for the state, which is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths ahead of the holidays. A total of 5,450 new cases and 71 more deaths were reported Wednesday.

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Over the past two weeks, anywhere from 40,000 to 124,000 COVID tests have been processed in the state each day. But state officials are preparing for far fewer to be conducted Thursday as sites contend with heavy snowfall.

“When you’re testing 50 to 60 to 70 to 100,000 people a day, if you lose a day it’s actually a big deal,” Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday. He encouraged those with tests scheduled for Thursday to reach out to individual sites to see if they are still operating.

Some sites, like the drive-through resident-only location inside the covered parking garage at the Cambridgeside mall, may remain fully operational, while outdoor sites are shut or delayed in opening.

“My expectation is that it will take those [testing site] folks, just like it takes everybody else, a while to dig out and clean up and get back in business,” said Baker.

The storm arrives just days after the first shipments of the vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech arrived at hospitals around the state and inoculations of front line health care workers and hospital staffers are starting up.

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Vaccinations started Wednesday at Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, and Lowell General Hospital, among others.

But vaccination remains months away for most Massachusetts residents. In the meantime, the demands for testing remain steady, albeit significantly lower than the surge of tests in the days before Thanksgiving, when people prepared to travel or spend time with family. So far, as Christmas approaches, testing sites across the state do not appear to be overwhelmed in a similar way. Tufts Medical Center, which was maxed out at 683 tests a day prior to Thanksgiving, was processing just 400 a day as of Wednesday.

Baker said the state is continuing to expand the capacity and quantity of the state-financed Stop the Spread sites, which provide free testing to asymptomatic and symptomatic residents to walk-ins and those with appointments. By the end of the month, the sites aim to process 110,000 tests per week through 25 sites across the state.

The surge is steadily taking its toll on Boston’s hospital systems. Mayor Martin J. Walsh warned Wednesday that the number of COVID-19-related ER visits has gone up in the past eight days, while the number of available hospital beds has fallen. As of Wednesday, 1,851 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, 382 of whom were in intensive care units, continuing an upward trend that began in October.

“Our hospitals at this point are not in danger of being overwhelmed but the trend is certainly concerning to all of us,” said Walsh.

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Walsh also called on legislators in Washington to put aside their differences to pass a second COVID-19 relief bill that would provide long-delayed aid to small businesses and unemployed Americans.

By Wednesday afternoon, congressional negotiators had closed in on a $900 billion package that would deliver additional “paycheck protection” subsidies to businesses, $300 per week jobless checks, and $600 or so stimulus payments to most Americans.

“Businesses all across America need this piece of legislation to go through. They need to stop playing politics with it. They need to stop having sides with it. They need to put the American people first. They need to put businesses first. They need to pass this legislation,” Walsh said.

The mayor also warned that many of the city’s mobile testing sites might be closed Thursday and urged residents to call ahead.

The storm presents yet another challenge to the region: the worst of the virus hit in March, after the most severe part of winter had passed.

This storm, predicted to drop 12-18 inches of snow in Boston, comes at an especially hard time for local businesses already struggling with recent rollbacks. “I know this pullback is very tough on small business and cultural organizations in our city,” Walsh said. “I want to thank all of them for their cooperation and support during this very difficult time.”


Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.