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Boston announces free COVID-19 rapid tests, larger vaccine clinics for hard-hit neighborhoods

At Boston City Hall, Mayor Michelle Wu announced her COVID-19 advisory committee, a group of doctors, public health professionals and multidisciplinary leaders who will assist in decision-making around tackling new variants and working to end the pandemic in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The city of Boston will provide 20,000 free rapid antigen home tests as well as free masks to communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 and high barriers to purchasing test kits on their own, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, announced Monday.

Ojikutu joined Mayor Michelle Wu for a press conference in which Wu also announced members of a new COVID-19 advisory committee, which will be chaired by Ojikutu.

Ojikutu said the city will distribute the free tests and masks ahead of the holidays. She said the city is also expanding access to vaccines, including by holding higher capacity vaccine clinics.

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Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, will chair a new COVID-19 advisory committee.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The moves are part of a four-pronged initiative unveiled Monday by the Wu administration to combat the latest phase of the pandemic, as the Omicron variant bears down on Massachusetts.

The city’s newly announced vaccine clinics will be held on Saturday, Dec. 11, Dec. 18, and two Saturdays in January. The first of these will be held at Vine Street Community Center in Roxbury, and there will also be a clinic at City Hall on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The city already has seven family vaccination walk-in clinics in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Roslindale.

“We are currently in the midst of an anticipated COVID-19 winter surge,” Ojikutu said, with Boston’s rate of COVID-19 tests that return positive at 5.2 percent, up 15 percent from two weeks ago. The city is also expecting a jump in cases over the holidays. Ojikutu said 5 percent “is a threshold of concern” for the positivity rate.

“COVID-19 cases and hospitalization are up while vaccination among some of our most vulnerable populations is lagging behind to address this threat,” she said. “Vaccination is critical to ending this pandemic.”

Ojikutu said 67 percent of Boston’s overall population is fully vaccinated, but only 21 percent of those have received booster doses.

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Ojikutu also said the city would focus on boosting vaccination rates among children, which are lagging and reflecting racial disparities seen throughout the pandemic.

Only one quarter of all children in Boston ages five through 11 have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Ojikutu said. Almost 60 percent of white non-Hispanic children have been vaccinated, compared to just 35 percent of Asian children, 10 percent Latinx, and 7 percent of black children who have received their first dose.

Ojikutu said part of the city’s motivation for expanding vaccine clinics was hearing that people had challenges obtaining appointments for boosters. With these walk-in clinics, “there’s no online component.”

“We’re trying to get rid of the barriers that we think are stopping people from obtaining boosters or childhood vaccines or anything really,” Ojikutu said.

She said students and their families will have increased access to clinics at schools across the city throughout December and January, in partnership with Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Tufts Medical Center.

Along with increasing vaccinations and testing, the city’s four-pronged COVID-19 strategy also aims to enhance health communication, and double down on prevention.

Ojikutu said the city is working with organizations on the ground, such as the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition and the Greater Boston Latino Network, to help disseminate vaccine information. Meanwhile, indoor mask mandates remain in effect to attempt to curb the spread of disease.

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At the press conference, Wu also announced the new 17-member COVID-19 advisory group made up of public health professionals and community, business, and cultural leaders, that will assist in decision-making around tackling new variants and working to end the pandemic in Boston, according to a news release from the city.

“Everything is on the table and the goal of this group is to move quickly,” Wu said, adding that Boston is in a very “urgent situation.”

“The goal is to not only provide recommendations for what we need to decide right now in this moment as we’re headed into winter, but to help us think through the long-term impacts of this pandemic,” she said.

Ojikutu said the arrival of the Omicron variant in Massachusetts makes it even more important for Boston to be prepared. Though the patient’s symptoms were mild and did not require hospitalization, Ojikutu said there are some epidemiological data suggesting the variant is more transmissible and poses a greater risk of reinfection.

“More data are needed before we can answer any questions conclusively, but we’re monitoring the situation very, very carefully,” she said. “In this time of uncertainty, it’s important to remain vigilant but also to be calm.”

The members of the new COVID-19 advisory committee are:

  • Dr. Sabrina A. Assoumou, Louis W. Sullivan professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine
  • Kizzmekia Corbett, assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard School of Public Health
  • Louis Elisa, president of the Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association and member of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition
  • Paola García, community relations manager at Tufts Health Plan
  • Yvonne Garcia, chief of staff to State Street CEO Ron O’Hanley
  • Temple Gill, director of public affairs and strategic partnerships at Huntington Theater Company
  • Nia Grace, co-founder of Boston Black Hospitality Coalition and owner of The Underground Cafe + Lounge and Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen
  • Dr. Julia Koehler of Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School
  • Amy Latimer, president of TD Garden
  • Brian Moy, restaurateur and owner of Shōjō and Ruckus
  • Dinanyili Paulino, chief operations officer at La Colaborativa
  • Dr. Cassandra Pierre, medical director, public health programs at Boston Medical Center
  • Jake Sullivan, vice president for government and community affairs at Boston University
  • Tony Tjan, chairman and co-founder of Miniluxe
  • Reverend Liz Walker, senior pastor at Roxbury Presbyterian Church
  • Dr. Sandro Galea, Robert A. Knox professor at Boston University School of Public Health
  • Dr. Joseph Betancourt, MD, MPH, senior vice president, equity and community health at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Sahar Fatima can be reached at sahar.fatima@globe.com Follow her @sahar_fatima.