Covid is revving up, Walsh and Baker warn

Mayor Walsh is urging Bostonians to get tested for the disease that remains a major public health danger, particularly in Dorchester and Mattapan, and Gov. Baker is warning of an ominous surge in cases to come, even as hope emerged this week in the form of a potential vaccine that could be ready to administer widely next year.

The encouraging news about a vaccine breakthrough was checked some by the realities of a second surge of Covid-19 infections under way in Massachusetts. Baker and hospital officials on Tuesday outlined the steps they are planning to treat the growing number of people with the disease, including plans for the re-establishment of emergency field hospitals.

Since Labor Day, coronavirus cases are up nearly 300 percent and hospitalizations are up about 200 percent, Baker said, which has driven occupancy at Massachusetts hospitals to 67 percent overall and 50 percent at the intensive care unit level. The state’s trends are headed in the “wrong direction and show no signs of changing,” he said.

“Covid-19 has now been with us for the better part of a year and we’ve learned a lot about how to address this terrible virus. In addition to building a massive testing and tracing infrastructure, we’ve also executed on plans to better manage our health care systems during a pandemic,” Baker said, adding:

“Our experience from last spring shows that creating enough space to safely treat Covid patients and other patients throughout our health care system is the single most important aspect we have in navigating the pandemic as safely as possible, and being prepared for every scenario is critical.”

Baker was joined Tuesday by Jody White, CEO of Lowell General Hospital, and Kate Walsh, president and CEO of Boston Medical Center, in outlining steps the health care world is preparing to take as more coronavirus patients are admitted. Baker said his administration is planning for the return of field hospitals like the ones established this spring in Worcester, Boston, on Cape Cod, and elsewhere.

More details on the location of the new hospitals will come later this week, the governor said. He also noted that Massachusetts hospitals will be able to convert 400 acute care beds into ICU beds if needed.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the administration and the hospital community are trying to avoid having to cancel elective procedures and want people to feel comfortable getting care for something other than Covid at a hospital. There were fewer than 3,500 people treated for something other than the virus at Massachusetts hospitals in the third week of April and that today the hospitals are treating 7,000 people for something other than that, she said.

According to data tracked by the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) for the week of Oct. 25-31, Dorchester is still leading the city with the highest positive rates. Zip codes 02122 and 02124 have a 12 percent positive rate; and 02121 and 02125 are at 11.6 percent positivity. Mattapan and East Boston posted positive rates of 10.1 and 10 percent, respectively. The city’s overall positive rate is at 7.2 percent, down from 8 percent in the previous week.

Walsh said on Friday that an increase in testing will help city officials determine exactly where infections are happening and guide the response.

“We’ve increased testing and at the same time we saw fewer positive tests. We want to be able to get a more accurate number of where Covid-19 is in the city,” said Walsh. “There was an 8 percent increase in the number of people being tested last week. I want to continue to urge everyone to get tested.”

When asked about the potential for a multi-week pause on indoor dining, Walsh replied: “Everything is on the table but we’re hoping that we are able to get the numbers down... if we don’t, then we might have to take further action.”

Marty Martinez, chief of Health and Human Services for the city, said that case investigations and contact tracing show that the infection is spreading in several different ways.

“Infections are not coming from just one place or scenario,” he said. “There are a lot of scenarios which include people still going to work and coming back to their multi-generation homes; we see folks having small gatherings in their homes; and we see folks getting it from being out and about. The message is we need everyone to continue to think about face coverings, social distancing, and not being around a lot of people at one time.”

The news of the Pfizer study was announced Monday after the company and its partner, BioNTech, accumulated the necessary median of two months of safety data following the second and final dose of the vaccine candidate.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most, with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” said Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer chairman and CEO.

The clinical trial, which began July 27 and has enrolled 43,538 participants to date, is continuing. Based on current projections, the companies said they expect to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses globally in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“The first interim analysis of our global Phase 3 study provides evidence that a vaccine may effectively prevent Covid-19. This is a victory for innovation, science, and a global collaborative effort,” said Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech. “We will continue to collect further data as the trial continues to enroll for a final analysis planned when a total of 164 confirmed cases have accrued. I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to make this important achievement possible.”