Gov. Charlie Baker is deploying the National Guard to buoy hospitals struggling from a flood of COVID-19 patients and staffing shortages and is urging people wear masks indoors — regardless of vaccination status — as the state battles a winter surge of infections.
Beginning Tuesday, the state will activate up to 500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to address the non-clinical support needs of hospitals by transporting patients, providing security, distributing meals to nursing homes and performing other non-emergency services.
The state Department of Public Health is also directing acute care hospitals to postpone all non-essential surgeries and procedures to free more beds in emergency rooms. The tightened restrictions take effect Dec. 27.
“There’s no question the next few weeks will be difficult for our healthcare community,” Baker told reporters at a Tuesday briefing. “There are staff shortages, sicker patients and fewer beds available. The steps we are taking today are designed to support them so they can continue taking care of patients.”
Meanwhile, the state is once again encouraging people to wear masks or face coverings indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said indoor masking is especially important for people with pre-existing conditions or those at higher risk for contracting the virus. She urged those who haven’t been vaccinated or boosted to get the shot.
“I know we are all feeling the pangs of pandemic fatigue,” Sudders said during Tuesday’s briefing. “But as we prepare to gather with our loved ones … It’s important for all of us to remember that the vaccines and boosters are highly effective in protecting against serious illness, hospitalization and death.”
Unlike an executive order Baker signed in May 2020 — which threatened fines up for $300 for anyone over age 2 who didn’t cover their face — the guidance issued on Tuesday only “recommends” that people wear masks to protect themselves.
Some communities — including Salem and Cambridge — already require masks inside city halls, municipal buildings and indoor retail spaces.
Masks are required in public schools for students over age 4 and all staffers, regardless of vaccination status, unless a school can prove at least 80% of its students and staff are vaccinated. Only a handful of schools have qualified.
Like many states, Massachusetts is dealing with a flood of COVID-19 patients fueled by highly contagious variants and colder temperatures that have increased indoor activities.
The Bay State is one more than 47 others that has detected cases of the new omicron mutation, which is more contagious than previous strains.
On Monday, the state Department of Public Health reported about 13,717 new COVID-19 infections and 28 deaths over the weekend.
The seven-day weighted average for positive COVID-19 test was 5.91% — the highest it has been since January during a previous surge of infections.
More than 1,500 patients were hospitalized with the virus as of Monday, including 347 being treated in intensive care units, according to the state agency.
As of Tuesday, all Massachusetts counties were listed as areas of “substantial” or “high” transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospitalizations have increased more than 50% over the past two weeks amid higher-than-normal levels of people seeking treatment for COVID, influenza and other infectious diseases, as well as ailments they put off getting treatment for during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a crucial shortage of nurses and other healthcare professionals is preventing many hospitals from expanding their capacity.
Federal health officials are recommending that families getting together for the holidays consider getting tested to prevent further spread of the virus.
President Joe Biden recently announced plans to require health insurers to reimburse people who purchase at-home rapid tests to expand their use ahead of the holidays.
Last week, Baker announced that the state will be distributing at least 2 million rapid at-home tests across the state to 102 hard-hit communities.
Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, issued a statement after Baker’s briefing on Tuesday calling for a statewide indoor public mask mandate, a requirement for proof of vaccination for most public indoor social venues and expanded testing in public schools.
Spilka said the state needs to “move beyond advisories and recommendations and apply a uniform, consistent approach to stopping the spread and saving lives.”
“We must act aggressively to mitigate the impact and spread of the new COVID-19 omicron variant across Massachusetts and prioritize protecting our most vulnerable residents, workers, and communities disparately impacted by the pandemic,” she said.
Baker has been under pressure to bring back more COVID-19 restrictions amid the latest surge.
A group of lawmakers sent a letter to Baker last week urging him to adopt a “Covid-19 Action Plan” from public health and medical experts that would align the state’s indoor and school mask policies with federal health guidelines.
At a briefing later Tuesday, lawmakers rolled out medical experts to talk about the need for tougher COVID-19 restrictions — such as a mandatory indoor mask requirement — and faulted the Baker administration for not implementing more preventative steps to prevent the expected spread of the omicron variant.
“We need leadership,” said Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, who organized the briefing. “The governor’s persistent refusal to follow CDC guidelines on mask wearing, and failure to provide a data driven blueprint to keep our residents safe puts all of us, families and businesses alike, at risk.”
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