Boston health officials will distribute 20,000 free rapid antigen home tests and free masks to neighborhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration announced Monday.
The city will also expand access to vaccinations, including at new high-volume clinics and city schools.
The plan, announced at a City Hall press conference, marked the new mayor’s first initiative to combat the latest phase of the pandemic, as the Omicron variant bears down on Massachusetts. She also announced the formation of a 17-member board to advise the city on its COVID-19 response.
“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” as cases and hospitalizations rise.
Wu’s remarks came on a day when other local and federal leaders, as well as employers, stepped up efforts to slow the spread of Omicron.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate for all private employers in the city that he described as the first of its kind in the country. Federal health authorities issued a warning against travel to several European countries, including France and Portugal, as well as Jordan and Tanzania in the face of surging COVID-19 rates there. And the Ford Motor Co. became the latest employer, in addition to Google and Uber, to postpone its return to the office well beyond January.
“We’re now entering year three of this public health emergency with new variants continuing to emerge and it is clear that we need leadership from every sector to help us take on this public health crisis with immediate steps,” Wu said.
Led by Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, the COVID-19 advisory group is made up of physicians and public health professionals, as well as restaurateurs and community and cultural leaders. They include Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, and the Rev. Liz Walker, senior pastor at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church.
A spokesman for Boston Public Health Commission said the home tests would be distributed with the help of community groups in neighborhoods “with higher rates of COVID and higher barriers to purchasing rapid tests on their own,” but he did not specify the neighborhoods. They’re being paid for through the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, with money designated for vaccine distribution and testing.
The tests give results in about 15 minutes. They can reveal, with high accuracy, whether a person is infectious at that moment. Health officials recommend that people take the test when they are about to travel or attend an indoor gathering.
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the plan to distribute the rapid tests “is exactly the sort of thing we need.” But he cautioned that people need to know when to use them. “If you wait for symptoms, you could easily have transmitted already,” he said.
“These tests are something you can use to make sure you’re not infectious if you’re going into a place where you really would not want to pass the virus on — like a big family holiday gathering, or if you are working in a job that contacts a lot of older vulnerable folks,” Hanage said in an e-mail. “And you get the results in minutes. No waiting around for ages — during which time you might have been infected.”
The city will supply masks along with the home tests before the holidays, Wu said. The city’s indoor mask mandate remains in effect.
Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, called the city’s plan “a tremendous effort” to ramp up testing and access to vaccines and boosters.
“It’s critically important to ensure that as many people get vaccinated as possible and anything we can do or that state and city governments can do to increase access to vaccinations is exactly what we need,” he said.
Kuritzkes also commended the plan for at-home tests but noted that the need likely exceeds the 20,000 that the city plans to distribute.
Meanwhile, Ojikutu said the city faces a continuing challenge getting vaccines administered where they are most needed. “COVID-19 cases and hospitalization are up while vaccination among some of our most vulnerable populations is lagging behind,” she said.
Although 67 percent of Bostonians are fully vaccinated, of them, only 21 percent have received their booster dose, “a key component to maintaining strong immunity against COVID-19,” Ojikutu said.
Additionally, there are clear disparities among who is getting boosted.
Black residents make up 13.4 percent of those who have received boosters, although they account for 25.2 percent of the city’s population. Latinos account for only 9.4 percent of booster doses, even though they represent 19.8 percent of the city’s population.
Additionally, Ojikutu said, more than half of those over age 65 have not gotten a booster. And 84 percent of people younger than 65 also have not been boosted. Those people, she noted, include teachers, health care workers, and others employed in high-risk settings, as well as people with underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19.
Disparities are also evident among children receiving their first shot. Almost 60 percent of white children ages 5 through 11 have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while only 35 percent of Asian, 10 percent of Latino, and 7 percent Black children in that age group have received the shot, Ojikutu said.
“We’re going to double down in our efforts to increase the citywide vaccination by making vaccine clinics more accessible throughout the city,” Ojikutu said. “Anyone who wants a vaccine or booster must be able to get one.”
The city already has seven walk-in clinics, in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, High Park and Roslindale. “You don’t need to go online; just go,” Ojikutu said.
Additionally, higher-capacity clinics are planned for Dec. 11 and Dec. 18 at the Vine Street Community Center in Roxbury and Thursday at City Hall.
Additional locations will be announced, and to find out more, call 311 or go to boston.gov.
“I also think it’s important for us to mention Boston Public Schools,” Ojikutu said. “We need to increase our vaccination amongst our children.”
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.
Sahar Fatima of the Globe staff contributed to this report.