Boston’s top public health official is optimistic about COVID-19 trends in the city, saying she expects all three thresholds that will trigger lifting the proof-of-vaccine requirement for certain indoor spaces to be met in coming weeks.
Speaking at a virtual City Council hearing Friday, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director at the city’s public health commission, said that core metrics guiding the city’s pandemic response are all trending in the right direction.
Mayor Michelle Wu earlier this week laid out a trio of data thresholds that must be met before she will lift Boston’s vaccine requirement for indoor dining, gyms, clubs, and theaters. First, the city’s ICU capacity has to be below 95 percent. Ojikutu said Friday it is currently at 89 percent.
Also, the city’s daily COVID hospitalizations must dip below 200 a day. While the city has yet to cross that threshold, with the latest data indicating the city is at 387 hospitalizations a day, the numbers are down significantly from mid-January, when the city was averaging more than 780, Ojikutu said.
“That’s significant progress,” she said.
Lastly, the city’s community positivity rate must fall below 5 percent. According to the city’s COVID dashboard, the latest community positivity rate is 6.9 percent. Ojikutu said in early January the community positivity rate for Boston was 32.7 percent.
“Based on our current projections, I anticipate that all three of these thresholds will be met in the coming weeks,” she said.
Ojikutu made the comments while being questioned by city councilors during a hearing on Wu’s toughed COVID-19 vaccine requirement for municipal workers. The hearing was requested by four councilors who signaled support for public safety unions that remain locked in a fight with the mayor over the mandate, which dropped an earlier option for city workers to get tested regularly in lieu of shots.
The hearing was held virtually, something that has repeatedly happened for council sessions since a handful of anti-mask hecklers disrupted a meeting last month.
Wu’s administration has maintained that the vaccination requirement is important to protect public health. During Friday’s hearing, Ojikutu reiterated the significance of vaccinations in combating the virus.
“Vaccines are a critical component of this pandemic, of getting through it. We know that they are safe; they are a very effective way to protect ourselves, particularly from severe illness and hospitalization and death,” she said.
Union representatives used the hearing as an opportunity to again charge that Wu ignored collective bargaining agreements Acting Mayor Kim Janey reached with the unions last year. They say it is wrong for the mayor to make vaccination a condition of employment with the city.
Several leaders questioned the basis for the mandate, pointing to improving public health metrics. The Boston Police Superior Officers Federation argued in written testimony that Wu’s decisions were “guided by political science rather than science.”
Public health experts widely agree that vaccination against COVID-19 is more effective at curbing the disease’s spread than testing alone, which only provides a snapshot in time of whether an individual is infected.
Union representatives took issue, too, with how Wu rolled out the requirement and how the administration has negotiated. The administration has said it remains at the table.
“We’re looking for a partnership and we’re getting, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’ That’s just unacceptable,” said Chris “Tiger” Stockbridge, a leader with AFSCME Council 93.
Elissa Cadillic, president of Boston Public Library Employees Union Local 1526, said, “announcing a policy without meeting with the unions is bad faith.”
“Do it the right way,” Cadillic added.
For some city councilors, the hearing was an opportunity to vent frustration with the Wu administration and signal support for the municipal bargaining units.
“What have we become?” demanded City Councilor Frank Baker, who during the hearing repeatedly criticized the vaccine mandate as well as Wu’s indoor vaccination requirement for restaurants and certain other indoor venues. First responders, he argued, should be celebrated for their efforts during the pandemic, not at risk of termination for refusing the vaccine.
And Baker questioned the administration’s responsiveness, though Wu has said her team continues to negotiate.
“This administration refuses to have a conversation,” Baker asserted, “and that’s a problem.”
The hearing came just a day after Wu announced an agreement with the Boston Teachers Union that will ease the vaccine mandate on educators. The agreement allows educators to be tested regularly for COVID-19 in lieu of vaccination, but only during periods of lower virus transmission. At other times, unvaccinated teachers would either have to use accrued time or take unpaid leave.
The negotiation represented progress for Wu in an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious labor dispute — but it also marked a significant, if metrics-driven, retreat from her original vaccine mandate, which lacked a testing opt-out.
Currently, Boston is barred from enforcing the mandate amid a legal challenge from several first responder unions. But the city intends to enforce it if and when the stay is lifted, a process that would begin with placing unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave.
The teachers union’s deal protects its unvaccinated members from being fired, as long as they abide by the twice-a-week testing requirement. But other unvaccinated city workers could risk termination if their unions do not come to similar understandings with the Wu administration. Wu said in December that the vaccine requirement would be a condition of employment for city workers, meaning they could be fired if they did not comply.
The vast majority of the city’s roughly 19,000 employees have been inoculated, a number that has grown since Wu announced her mandate in December. Just 367 educators remain unvaccinated, a tiny fraction of the union’s 8,403 members, the Boston Teachers Union said this week.