Vaccine dose rate on rise as the city slowly reopens

Boston moved into a new phase of eased-up pandemic restrictions on Monday as children from pre-K to Grade 3 returned to classrooms for the first time in a nearly a year and restaurants and other indoor businesses faced renewed activity with capacity allowances ramped up to 50 percent.

Still, Mayor Walsh said on Monday, less stringent statewide rules governing live entertainment indoors would not be allowed within the city until later in the month.

Meanwhile, efforts to protect the city’s residents against the deadly virus have made steady progress. As of Feb. 23, more than 96,000 Bostonians – some 15 percent of them over age 16 – had received at least their first dose of vaccine protection against Covid-19. The numbers have no doubt risen since that date.

“Of those folks, about 42 percent went to people of color,” said Health and Human Services chief Marty Martinez, who joined Walsh in a Monday press conference to offer updates on the city’s pandemic response.

Across the state, a number equivalent to the population of Methuen — roughly 51,000 people — got their second vaccination doses between last Friday's report from the Department of Public Health and Sunday's update. There are now 550,000 people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Gov. Baker said Monday morning, compared to 550,302 total confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic.

Also on Monday, Baker said about 68 percent of state residents 75 and older had been vaccinated. In the long-term care sector, 90 percent of residents and about 70 percent of staff had received vaccines, he noted.

As to renewed commercial activity in Boston, certain businesses will not yet be able to either reopen or increase capacity limits, including indoor concert venues, high-contact indoor recreation like roller skating or laser tag, and live music in restaurants.

Walsh said that the city will continue to align with the state’s phased-in reopening set for March 22, moving into phase 4 step 1 – “if our cases and public health data support that.”

He added: “I want to be clear: We are moving forward here in the city of Boston along with the state, but we have some important exceptions that are going into effect. We’re taking an approach that fits our unique qualities as a large, mostly dense, city.

“We have not increased the six-person maximum at tables and I know restaurants want that, but just be patient. We will get there, but we are making sure the public health numbers are safe before we do this.”

Enhanced outdoor dining in Boston will resume on April 1 and additional details on restricted parking and street closures will be made available in the coming weeks. So far, the city has received 370 applications for outdoor dining licenses and approved more than 150.

Walsh also urged Bostonians to continue to get tested for the virus as the state-led effort to distribute vaccine shots begins to penetrate deeper into the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.

There are now 17 vaccination sites in the city, including 7 community health centers, 8 pharmacies, and 2 mass vaccination sites, including the Reggie Lewis Center and Fenway Park.

Half the appointments at the Reggie Lewis Center have been reserved as priority booking for residents of "Roxbury and surrounding communities"– including Dorchester.

“We are proud of the equitable access we’ve been able to provide to city of Boston residents, especially at the Reggie Lewis Center,” said Walsh. “Moving forward, we’re going to continue to hold 50 percent of the vaccine slots eligible for people of color, working through community health centers and city agencies.”

So far, more than 4,000 people have been vaccinated at the Lewis Center since it opened on Feb. 1, according to Martinez. He said 45 percent of those were people of color and 55 percent Boston residents, with Roxbury as the most represented of the city's neighborhoods.

State officials have contracted with CIC Health, which runs the mass vaccination programs at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, to expand the Reggie Lewis operation. The agency said it will have the capacity to administer 800 Pfizer shots per day from the Reggie Lewis Center with plans to "ramp up to 2,500 daily appointments within about a month."

When asked if the city might use outdoors and drive-through vaccination sites as the weather begins go warm up, Martinez replied: “That’s definitely a part of it. We’re not quite there weather-wise where we’d want to create outdoor locations but it’s definitely a part of the larger piece.

“What we want to be able to do around vaccinations,” he said, “is to not only have these fixed locations— pharmacies, community health centers, and our mass vaccination sites – but also places where we can bring the vaccine.”

With respect to education, the BPS’s invitation to pre-K to Grade 3 pupils for in-person learning meant that another 7,900 students in all could return to classrooms, adding up to a total of 15,000 students who have been invited to return to city schools since the beginning of November.

“We’ll continue to bring students back into our schools safely as long as the public health data support it,” said Walsh, adding that Covid-19 pool testing will be offered to all students whose families consent.

Per the timeline that BPS released in January, all students in grades 4 through 8 will be eligible for in-person learning on March 15 and all remaining students will be eligible on March 29.

Walsh also took notice of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday. He warned Bostonians about social distancing, reminding everyone that the parade in South Boston has been cancelled again this year and that private gatherings remain limited to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors.

“There should be no large gatherings of any kind for St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “We are so close to a finish line here; what we don’t need now is a step backwards. Events like St. Patrick’s Day become super-spreader events and bring us into a situation where we’re shutting everything down again.”