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Experts warn more trouble could be ahead, as COVID surge hits Boston’s hospitals, schools

People covered with a fine dust of snow on their heads, coats, and boots stood in a carefully spaced line outside the Whittier Street Health Center Friday waiting to get a COVID-19 test.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Boston’s public health director sounded a warning Monday about rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state’s largest city, as new data from the state painted a picture of a continuing surge fueled by the Omicron variant.

The state Department of Public Health Monday reported a staggering 60,986 COVID-19 cases over a three-day period. The report covers three days because the state this summer stopped reporting on weekends. The state also reported 53 confirmed deaths.

In a briefing Monday at City Hall, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the city was seeing more than 2,200 COVID-19 cases a day. The test positivity rate is hovering at 32 percent.

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“Our hospitalizations have gone up about 50 percent in the last week,” Ojikutu said. “Our emergency department visits have also gone up about 30 percent in the last week.”

Data posted Friday on the city’s website said that as of Thursday the city was reporting a 7-day average of 522.6 people hospitalized in Boston and a seven-day average of 618.7 COVID-19-related emergency department visits daily to Boston hospitals.

The state overall, which has now recorded more than 20,000 COVID-19 deaths since the first confirmed death in March 2020, has seen rocketing case numbers that in recent days have pushed hospitalizations to levels beyond last winter’s surge.

According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the seven-day average of people in the hospital statewide with COVID-19 as of Sunday was 2,593. The number was up from 1,901 a week before, or more than a third. The hospitalization numbers have more than quadrupled since mid-November.

The numbers are stressing hospitals already burdened with workers sidelined due to the virus and other care for chronic illnesses that’s been delayed.

Experts have warned that more trouble could be ahead.

While COVID-19 case counts have shot up to record levels, experts say they aren’t reflecting the full extent of the Omicron surge because people who use rapid, at-home antigen tests can’t report their results.

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A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said in an e-mail that there is no avenue for residents to inform the state of positive results from antigen tests.

The majority of at-home tests “are not reportable,” the spokesperson wrote.

“The exceptions are those that are observed during telehealth visits or those where collection occurs at home and the sample is mailed into a laboratory for testing.”

Select states, including Ohio and Washington D.C., have created online forms for people to self-report positive results. When asked if Massachusetts plans to launch a similar program, the Department of Public Health did not immediately respond.

Some Massachusetts cities have set up methods of their own to report self-tests. Chelsea encourages those who test positive at home to call 311. Residents will be connected with a public health official to discuss next steps. (It is unclear whether the at-home testing reports are added to the city’s case count.)

Concern about COVID-19 cases in schools persisted Monday after officials last week reported a huge number of cases among students and staff, and many school districts said they were battling staffing shortages as a result of illnesses.

State officials said they were extending a policy that requires most students and staff to wear masks in public school buildings through the end of February.

“The mask requirement remains an important measure to keep students, teachers, and staff in school safely at this time. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in consultation with medical experts and state health officials, will continue to evaluate public health data,” the agency said in a statement Monday.

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School districts can lift the mask mandate for certain schools if they can prove that at least 80 percent of the school community, including students and staff, is vaccinated.

At the Boston briefing, Ojikutu said that officials are concerned about all city residents and remain “very concerned” about the city’s public school teachers, staff, and students.

“What we’ve done to ensure or to decrease the risk of ... transmission, we’ve put in recommendations for strategies that I think are quite important,” she said.

Ojikutu said those strategies included increasing the frequency of surveillance testing in schools; enforcing isolation practices for those who test positive; requiring people to have a negative rapid antigen test to return to school after isolating because of a positive test, and providing surgical masks as well as “higher grade” K95 masks to teachers and staff.

“And then as Mayor Wu emphasized, we need to get people vaccinated and boosted,” Ojikutu said. “Our rate of vaccination amongst ages 5 to 11 is about 37 percent across the city.”

City officials are also in contact with the state on school-related efforts.

“We’re discussing doing increased surveillance testing in the schools right now,” Ojikutu said. “We’ll certainly work very closely with them. ... We’re trying to put the right mitigation strategies in place to keep schools as safe as possible.”

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Schools in Boston were to be closed Tuesday due to the frigid weather. At the briefing, Wu cited multiple concerns arising from the temperatures, which were expected to dip into the single digits overnight and max out at about 11 degrees on Tuesday, with wind chill values as low as minus-8.

Among those concerns was the need for some classrooms, Wu said, to keep windows open as a protection against disease transmission.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.