Boston health officials are urging families to take precautions, including masking indoors, while using public transportation, and testing before and after gatherings over the holidays, amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations, as well as flu infections.
Health and school officials are also considering a return to universal indoor masking in the city’s schools for a couple of weeks after the holiday break, hoping to avoid a repeat of the surge in illnesses and severe teacher shortages from last January that prompted former superintendent Brenda Cassellius to take on teaching duties in Roxbury.
A letter sent to all families in the district Thursday night from Boston Superintendent Mary Skipper said school and city health leaders were discussing a temporary masking mandate for the first two weeks of school after the break and would make a final decision toward the end of next week.
“Based on last year’s experience with a significant surge in COVID and its impact on staffing shortages and student absences, we know this temporary policy change may help mitigate any concerns as we return from winter break,” she wrote.
At the same time, Boston health officials are warily watching a significant rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations. A notice to residents Friday reported a 31 percent increase in COVID hospitalizations over the past week and 72 percent over the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, flu continues to spread throughout Boston and many other Massachusetts communities at a very high rate.
“The holidays are an important time to gather and celebrate with loved ones,” Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, commissioner of public health and executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said Friday in a statement.
“However, with high rates of COVID-19 and flu in Boston, it’s important we all take precautions to protect ourselves and others,” she said.
In addition to “strongly” recommending indoor masking, Ojikutu also encouraged families to limit the size of gatherings and to promote proper ventilation by keeping windows open, when possible, particularly for older adults or those with chronic health problems that raise their risk of severe COVID complications.
A group of Boston Schools parents, worried about a repeat of last winter’s COVID surge in illnesses, has been lobbying city leaders to bring back indoor masks temporarily after the break.
“We know that learning loss has been a big concern and kids can’t learn if they aren’t in school or are sick,” said Cindy Shyr, a member of BPS Families for Covid Safety, who has a son in kindergarten.
Before the Thanksgiving break, the number of reported COVID cases in the city’s schools hovered around 100 a week, but since then the number has nearly tripled.
In a statement to the Globe, the Boston Public Health Commission said it has discussed a return to masking in the schools with the parents group and is considering that, as well as other mitigation measures.
Boston would not be the only large city school district to temporarily mandate masking after the holidays. Philadelphia’s district this week announced that all students and staff would be required to mask for the first two weeks of school in January, “in an effort to be proactive about supporting physical health.”
In New Jersey, the Passaic Public Schools district didn’t wait till the holiday, and on Wednesday brought back mandatory masking until high COVID transmission levels declined.
While the severity of most COVID cases today is much milder than during the last two winters, the rising number of COVID-related hospitalizations in Boston and across the state is placing significant stress on the state’s already beleaguered hospital system, said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the division of infectious diseases, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Every person who comes in with COVID or flu needs to be in a private room in isolation,” he said.
Many hospitals are full with patients who are ready to be discharged but can’t be taken to post-acute care facilities for follow-up care, such as nursing homes, because those places lack staff to care for them. And that’s prompting hours-long waits for new patients in emergency rooms.
Respiratory viruses typically surge in the winter, and this year flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, have hit particularly hard and early, filling up hospital beds.
The latest levels of coronavirus detected in Eastern Massachusetts waste water continue to show elevated levels, suggesting additional COVID infections that have yet to be reported.
And the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show rising infections in Western Massachusetts as well, with the transmission level for Hampden County, which includes the greater Springfield area, elevated from moderate to high levels. Hampden is the second Massachusetts county after Nantucket to be designated a high transmission area by the CDC this month.
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.