The city of Worcester is "strongly encouraging residents to wear masks" in indoor public settings, officials announced Friday, amid COVID-19 cases rising.
The city is averaging about 129 COVID cases per day, a metric that's risen steadily since it reached a low-point on March 12. It's now at its highest point since February, the city said.
COVID cases are on the rise statewide as well. On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 11 out of Massachusetts' 14 counties -- including Worcester County -- are now considered high risk for COVID-19. That's up from seven Massachusetts counties the week before.
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And while Massachusetts' COVID metrics, tracked on the Department of Public Health's interactive coronavirus dashboard, have declined since the omicron surge, case counts and hospitalizations are starting to increase once again.
State health officials reported 5,576 new COVID-19 cases Thursday. The last time there were over 5,000 new cases reported in a single day was at the end of January.
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This latest increase is being attributed to subvariants of omicron -- the "stealth" omicron variant BA.2, and the BA.2. 12.1 subvariant, which health officials say appears to be up to 27% more contagious than BA.2. However, there is no data to indicate it causes more serious illness.
In its mask recommendation announcement on Friday, the city of Worcester also cited regional wastewater data, which as of Friday showed COVID levels that have only been reached in two previous surges.
But the announcement also sounded an optimistic note, suggesting that the current surge might be ending soon: "Despite the current trend in Worcester, health officials are encouraged by the current Omicron subvariant’s status in the United Kingdom, which has tracked several weeks ahead of the United States. Cases there have rapidly dropped since a peak in late March/early April."
Worcester's announcement fell short of a mask mandate, though city hospitals do still require face coverings.
"While the days of mask mandates are hopefully behind us, we should make a risk assessment for ourselves to determine whether masks are appropriate," the heads of the city health department, UMass Memorial Health and Saint Vincent Hospital said in a statement. "We strongly urge that getting vaccinated not be viewed as optional, but as an important and effective public health remedy that will keep these subvariants from continuing to mutate and cause a surge in cases."
Massachusetts' indoor mask mandate ended last May, and the state's mandate for public school students was lifted at the end of February.
Massachusetts COVID experts tell NBC Boston they continue to see value in masking in schools where community transmission is high.