The Baker administration said Tuesday that residents are now advised to wear masks in indoor public spaces, the National Guard is being activated to help hospitals, and hospitals must delay elective procedures that will result in admissions, as Massachusetts continues to grapple with a COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
“We updated the face-covering advisory today to urge all residents to wear a mask in public indoor spaces,” Governor Charlie Baker said during a State House briefing. “We’ll continue to release the best public health [guidance] we have, so people can make informed decisions about how to protect themselves.”
Baker said the state will support communities that adopt “additional” safety protocols, and he continued to plug vaccines.
“For the foreseeable future, Massachusetts and most of the country will see large numbers of new cases,” Baker said, adding that “vaccinated people may test positive, but their chances of dying or getting seriously ill are so small, they pale in comparison to so many riskier behaviors out there. ... And if you’re boosted, your risk of getting sick is even lower.”
The state Department of Public Health on Tuesday released an updated advisory “recommending” that all residents, regardless of vaccination status, wear a face-covering in indoor public spaces, the Baker administration said in an earlier statement.
The DPH “particularly urges this recommendation for individuals who have a weakened immune system, or are at increased risk for severe disease because of age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in their household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated,” the statement said.
Asked during the briefing about the possibility of imposing a harder mask mandate, instead of an advisory, Baker voiced strong resistance to the idea.
“I have no interest in putting a mandate on this issue, given all the tools that are available on a statewide basis,” Baker said. “If locals wish to pursue alternative options, they can do so. We issued a mask mandate last fall because we had no other options available to us.”
Now, Baker said, the state has more tools in its arsenal.
“At this point in time, we have vaccines, we have rapid tests, we have our testing sites, and people know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t with respect to combating the virus,” Baker said. “And if people wish to add an extra layer of protection by wearing a mask in indoor settings, we would urge them to do so, especially when we have cases rising across the Commonwealth.”
But during a later remote briefing hosted by state Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, some public health specialists and activists called for a statewide mask mandate.
“We do see that mask policies are really necessary,” said Dr. Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health, policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health, during the Rausch-led briefing. “Mask advisories are not sufficient to have achieved everyone in an indoor space wearing masks ... which is what make mask policies so effective.”
Raifman said data suggests “formal mask policies” result in higher rates of mask wearing.
“That’s what we need,” Raifman said. “We need everyone to wear a mask together.”
State officials also said earlier Tuesday that up to 300 Guard members will begin training this week to support 55 acute care hospitals, as well as 12 ambulance service providers across the state with “non-clinical support” needs. Up to 500 Guard members could ultimately be activated, and deployments will start Dec. 27.
And, authorities said, Hospitals, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 27, are directed “to postpone or cancel all nonessential elective procedures likely to result in inpatient admission in order to” preserve capacity.
State officials have said a critical staffing shortage has contributed to a loss of about 500 medical, surgical, and ICU beds statewide.
Baker also reiterated that testing for the virus remains critical.
“We also know testing works,” Baker said. “Rapid, at-home tests taken before you get together with people outside your household can prevent transmission. They offer a little more peace of mind this holiday season, too. And the hundreds of testing sites around the state can do the same.”
Officials said last week that the state’s delivering 2.1 million free at-home COVID-19 tests to hard-hit communities in an effort to slow the spread of the virus with a winter surge looming.
“We wanted those rapid tests to be available in those communities to help people stay safe and to test themselves before and after they involve themselves in gatherings,” Baker said Tuesday.
The tests, Baker said, “are also available at retail, at your local pharmacy, and many other locations, and you can also purchase them online.”
Asked if there were any plans to expand testing availability, Baker said the state’s currently doing about 100,000 tests daily at testing sites, in addition to the 2 million rapid tests distributed “out into communities.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to make as much testing capability available as we can,” Baker said. “We get the fact that at this time of year, there’s going to be heavy demand on them, which means people may have to be patient and to wait. But that testing capacity is a critical piece, we believe, of our strategy to help people stay safe.”
Tuesday’sHis announcement comes as a number of cities and towns have already adopted safety measures, such as mask mandates and proof of vaccination for certain businesses, in an effort to stave off the virus.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday announced new vaccine requirements for indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment establishments in the city and strengthened a vaccine mandate for the city’s 18,000-strong workforce as COVID-19 cases multiply.
Beginning Jan. 15, patrons of affected Hub businesses will be required to show proof of vaccination. Additionally, the city is requiring all its employees to be vaccinated and eliminating an option for city workers to be regularly tested instead of being vaccinated.
Mask mandates have also been instituted in various cities and towns in Massachusetts.
The Globe reported last week that several communities, including Georgetown, Lowell, Chelsea, and Salem, have recently reimposed mask rules for indoor public spaces.
Recent data from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council showed that among the 101 communities it tracks in Greater Boston, nearly half had some form of indoor masking rules. At least 22, including Boston and Provincetown, require masks in all indoor public spaces, and another 24 have mandates for at least their municipal buildings.
Baker said Tuesday that the state wants to help Massachusetts cities and towns with their COVID-19 response strategies.
“I don’t want to get into the business of telling municipalities what to do and what not to do,” Baker said. “What I want to do is be here to help them, if they seek our help on initiatives that they pursue.”
This is a breaking news story that will be updated when more information is released. Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.