Omicron surges through the city, sending positivity numbers soaring

Boston’s coronavirus positivity rate rose this week to 32 percent, a 10 percent hike over last week and a number far above the 5 percent tipping-point threshold that came as city officials grappled with deeply cold temperatures, long testing lines, and staffing shortages inside public schools.

Testing residents has proved to be a particular challenge, mirroring a nationwide problem. At the Anna Cole Community Center in Jackson Square, people last week waited for more than three hours in the cold to get tested, prompting city officials to set up a tent, with heating and ventilation.

The testing site, one of the busiest in the city, also extended its hours to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The Heath Street Community Center is open Fridays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and closed on Saturdays.

The tents are temporary, according to Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, since they are seeking to open up additional testing sites with longer hours. “That’s really the longer-term solution to this,” she said.

Codman’s testing site at Russell Auditorium on Talbot Avenue was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday due to extreme cold. The health center planned to give out home test kits as an alternative to PCR tests in the interim.

Mayor Michelle Wu said on Monday that she didn’t expect district-wide school closures, with the exception of Tuesday, when falling temperatures forced the city into a snow day, the first temperature-driven closure since January 2015. Wu said there were 1,202 absences among teachers and staff on Monday.

“Closures are truly a last resort,” she said, with officials monitoring the situation school by school.

Dr. Ojikutu added that schools staying open are important for student social and educational wellbeing. They are seeking to increase testing in schools, she said.

But vaccination rates among children in Boston remain low. Among those ages 5 to 11, there is a 37 percent rate. Among Black children in that age range, 18 percent are vaccinated, and among Latinx children, 23 percent. “We can do better than that,” she said.

Some schools are still getting ready to offer remote learning, which will bring the city into conflict with state officials, including Gov. Baker, who have resisted flexibility on the topic. Schools will have to make up the days at the end of the year if they go into remote learning.

Baker said school districts must provide 180 days of in-person education this school year. The last day of school in Boston is currently June 22.

Baker said schools have “a bank of days that are available to them to deal with weather-related issues or work-related issues, and if we were to have a conversation with school districts about that, we would probably have it when we got a little farther through the year.”

Said Wu, whose administration has stayed in close contact with state officials, earlier this week: “This is all hypothetical at this point, because we’ve had not yet had to move there, but if staffing challenges persist at certain schools and we would need to do this on a school-by-school basis, many of these schools are already preparing to offer remote learning whether or not it gets counted by the state. And so, again, for Boston to have maximum flexibility in administering what is safest for our students, that still provides a high-quality learning experience, we would always appreciate that flexibility.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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