On a day when Massachusetts reported a single-day record for new COVID-19 cases, two teams of British researchers offered a glimmer of hope that the fast-moving Omicron variant may cause less severe illness than earlier variants, and US regulators authorized the first pill to treat the coronavirus.
Also on Wednesday, researchers in South Africa reported that cases there dropped by 20 percent in the past week, suggesting the country’s Omicron-fueled surge of infections may have peaked after about a month.
Still, federal, state, and local officials continue to urge caution ahead of Christmas and are pleading with unvaccinated individuals to get their shots and vaccinated people to get a booster.
While Omicron may lead to less severe symptoms, doctors in Massachusetts say the current surge has pushed health systems to a “crisis point” and hospitals are “nearing full capacity.”
“The good news is that we have the tools to turn the tide, but it will take a team effort. It will take a renewed sense of diligence and responsibility from everyone who calls Massachusetts home,” the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association said in a statement Wednesday.
The statement, signed by top officials from nine Massachusetts hospitals and health systems, outlined five crucial steps residents must take to ease the strain on hospitals, including getting vaccinated for both COVID-19 and the flu, plus receiving a COVID-19 booster shot when eligible, wearing a mask in public at all times, and testing for COVID-19 after exposure or developing symptoms.
It remains unclear how long this surge will last. The United States has seen cases rise by about 23 percent in the past 14 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Omicron, which early data show to be two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant, now accounts for more than 70 percent of US infections.
Massachusetts on Wednesday reported 7,817 new confirmed COVID cases — up from 5,133 new cases a week earlier — and 33 new deaths.
The state also reported 56,716 vaccinations, including booster shots, had been administered, the Department of Public Health said. The state also reported that 1,621 patients with COVID-19 were in the hospital. On Wednesday, the seven-day positivity was 7.02 percent.
The state’s report came a day after Governor Charlie Baker stopped short of requiring residents to wear masks and instead issued an advisory for people to wear face coverings in public spaces. Baker also announced that he’s activated the National Guard to assist overwhelmed hospitals.
On Wednesday, Baker defended his decision to issue the advisory rather than a hard mandate requiring masks. He cited the state’s high vaccination numbers as part of his reasoning.
“Now that we have 5 million people in Massachusetts who are vaccinated and almost 2 million people who are boosted, and we have rapid tests, [we should] recognize and understand that our strategy at this point is sort of layered and multidimensional,” Baker told GBH during his regular appearance on Boston Public Radio.
State and federal leaders, including Senate President Karen Spilka and US Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Edward J. Markey, have called for reimposing a mask mandate.
The absence of a statewide mandate has left local communities scrambling to craft their own rules. Mask mandates so far have been enacted in Boston, Medford, and Watertown.
The five-member Salem Board of Health voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt a mask mandate at least until March, and a vaccine requirement for public spaces and most businesses starting Jan. 15.
“To me it’d be irresponsible to not do something,” said Dr. Jeremy Schiller, the board chair, during an emergency meeting held via Zoom. ”The things we know work in lieu of shutting down businesses is vaccines and masks. They work.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s office on Wednesday said the city, which is averaging 369 new cases per day, has seen an 89 percent increase in positive cases compared to two weeks ago.
Earlier this week, Wu announced a new vaccine mandate for city workers, while eliminating the option to show a weekly negative COVID test in lieu of a vaccine. Wu’s mandate also sets a requirement for people to show proof of vaccination for some indoor spaces, including restaurants, gyms, and entertainment centers.
In a radio appearance Wednesday on Boston Public Radio, Wu said the mandate is necessary to keep patrons at ease and prevent businesses from being forced to shut down as cases continue to climb.
“It’s something meant to keep our businesses open,” she said.
Wu said she has received racist messages in the wake of the announcement and noted that many come from beyond the borders of the city and state.
“Every time I open my phone, it’s another dozen hateful messages, again from folks outside the city and all across the country who feel enraged at Boston taking a leadership role here,” Wu said on Boston Public Radio.
Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who last month became the first woman and first person of color elected to the mayor’s office in Boston’s history, said such opposition represented that there is “a clear message that there is still a part of our society, even in this state, even in this city, that really feels like something is being taken away from them . . . that is based in misinformation, it’s based in, I think at some level, hatred, and fear, and confusion.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, reaffirmed his concern for unvaccinated people, who he said are “very vulnerable” to becoming infected, during an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday.
“That’s why I worry about the people who refuse to get vaccinated. When you’re dealing with any SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 virus, it’s a problem,” he said. “When you’re dealing with one that spreads so rapidly and you are unvaccinated, the virus is going to find you.”
In the mix of positive and grim news surrounding the coronavirus this week, the FDA on Wednesday authorized Pfizer’s new drug, Paxlovid, the nation’s first pill against COVID-19, which individuals will be able to take at home. Though supply for the drug is expected to be limited initially, it may provide an affordable and fast option for treating early COVID-19 infections.
The drug is reportedly highly effective with a nearly 90 percent reduction in hospitalizations and death among patients most likely to suffer severe symptoms.
“The efficacy is high, the side effects are low, and it’s oral. It checks all the boxes,” Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic told the Associated Press. “You’re looking at a 90 percent decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that’s stunning.”
Still, the new studies released Wednesday in Britain seem to bolster earlier research that suggests Omicron may not be as harmful as the Delta variant, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.
“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” he said.
An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for Omicron cases in England, finding people infected with the variant are around 20 percent less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the Delta variant, and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.
That analysis included all cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December in which the variant could be identified: 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.
A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and other experts, suggested the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the program on which Wu made her comments.
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report. Danny McDonald and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Katie Redefer also contributed.