masks

Is Baker Bringing Back Massachusetts' Mask Mandate? Here's What He Says

COVID metrics like the number of new cases per day and the positive test rate have been increasing since the summer

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Coronavirus cases are spiking in Massachusetts, with many metrics reaching levels last seen in January, during last winter's surge.

The commonwealth had a mask mandate in place then -- it ended in May -- but when asked Monday if he was considering reinstating the mandate amid the latest surge, Gov. Charlie Baker said he has no plans to.

He stressed that Massachusetts is in a "far different position" than at this time last year due to the availability of the vaccine, booster shots and testing.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that starting this week the state will begin distributing over 2.1 million free COVID-19 rapid at-home tests to communities across Massachusetts.

"As we enter the winter months, we know we'll continue to see new cases," he said. "But this winter is very different than last winter.

"We have far more tools at our disposal to fight COVID this time," he continued. "Kids are staying in school, small businesses are open for holiday shopping. But COVID isn't going away anytime soon. If you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're eligible to get boosted, you should get boosted."

Baker also announced a major COVID testing initiative on Monday -- distributing over 2.1 million free COVID-19 rapid at-home tests to communities across Massachusetts, starting with the 102 communities with the highest proportion of families at or below the poverty level.

"These tests will be especially helpful as we head into the holiday season," he said. "Residents will be able to use them so they can safely gather with family and friends."

With families being urged to take precautions before gathering for the holidays, at-home COVID-19 tests have become harder to find.

The initiative will cost $10 million, and Massachusetts will seek to be reimbursed from federal funds, Baker said. But he noted that the state is working with test manufacturers to make available bulk, cheap purchasing deals for every city and town in Massachusetts: "This is not just a one time distribution of a one time test."

The demand for COVID tests has been growing as the weather has gotten colder. In June, the state was reporting less than 10,000 per day. That number has risen steadily to more than 40,000 by the start of December.

In the same time period, the COVID test positivity rate has risen from about 0.5% to about 5%.

Other COVID metrics are rising as well. Friday, the most recent day for which state COVID data is available, was the third day in a row in which more than 5,000 new cases were confirmed, levels not seen since January, according to Massachusetts' COVID metrics, tracked on the Department of Public Health's interactive coronavirus dashboard.

Three top Boston doctors explain what they've learned about the new omicron variant and what it means for Massachusetts.

And top COVID experts from Boston hospitals have told NBC10 Boston they expect that more cases will continue to be reported as the omicron variant spreads in Massachusetts, and it may surpass the prevalence of the delta variant.

"There's nowhere to go but up from here," said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious disease at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

But he also cautioned, "We can't lose focus on the fact that delta is now a huge problem for us here in Massachusetts, as well as across the country. ... We really need to be using all of the measures that are available to bring the current surge under control."

Amid the current surge, Massachusetts health officials have issued guidance to hospitals to help them maintain capacity in the face of any further influxes of hospital patients.

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