Walsh, city officials give update on BPS reopening and vaccine schedule

Martinez ‘absolutely considering’ a mayoral bid

Mayor Martin Walsh today warned that the rate of Covid-19 hospitalizations in Boston are reaching levels unseen since the pandemic’s peak surge last spring. The mayor and other city officials offered updates on the virus and related issues during a press briefing at City Hall, his first since he was nominated to be US Labor Secretary last week.

“East Boston, Dorchester, Hyde Park and Mattapan are still the neighborhoods with the highest positivity rates,” said Walsh. “Our case numbers are concerning and our hospital numbers are higher than we would like to see them. About 98 percent of adult non-surge hospital beds are occupied. It's the highest we’ve seen since almost the beginning of the first surge.”

There were 352 confirmed covid-19 cases and 7 deaths in the city on Wednesday, bringing Boston's caseloads since the start of the pandemic to 46,558 and 1,067, respectively.

The latest data from the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) for the week ending Jan. 7 shows a significant spike in testing as well as the average number of daily positives. Last week an average of 5,921 tests were administered daily, with an average of 542 daily positive returns.

The community positivity rate is at 8.7 percent, roughly level with data from the previous week.

Walsh said that, as of now, there is no need to reopen the Boston Hope field hospital that handled overflow cases last spring and summer.

“We are seeing numbers increase after the holidays, but it’s within our own control to contain the virus,” he added. “At my State of the City Address, I said Boston has been knocked down before but we always get back up. In 2021 we will get back up again but every person in the commonwealth has a role to play.”

Walsh did not take any questions from reporters, referring any inquiries to Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Marty Martinez, chief of Health and Human Services for the city.

Cassellius outlined a timeline for a full return to school by April 1 for BPS students.

“We know that the best learning environment for our students is in the classroom with their peers. It’s been close to a year that our students have been out of school. Many of our students have needs that can only be met with in-person services,” she said. “This is why we are standing here today with hope and a timeline to return students to school. It may not be fast enough for some, but it is a timeline that will provide certainty and move us forward to stability for the remainder of this school year.”

There are currently 1,900 high-need students learning in-person at 32 schools, including some students with disabilities, English language learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students who are in the care of the state Department of Children and Families.

Under the new timeline, which BPS reached in agreement with the Boston Teachers Union, the district would invite an additional 4,900 students back to classrooms on Feb. 1. Four weeks later, on March 1, the remainder of BPS students would be invited back for in-person learning every 2 weeks, starting with the youngest. The phased-in timeline is below:
-March 1: all K-3 students have the option to return
-March 15: all 4-8 students invited back
-March 29: high school students welcomed back

Parents will have the choice to opt-in or out of the hybrid model, and any students that want to learn at home will be able to.

“If necessary, any of these phases might be postponed based on the public health enforcement and advice of the Boston Public Health Commission,” said Cassellius.

Under BPS’s agreement with BTU, if the city’s Covid-19 positivity rate stays above 5 percent for two consecutive weeks, the city will provide free weekly Covid testing to union members who consistently report to work.

If the positivity rate is above 10 percent for two weeks, the union can ask to go back to the bargaining table with district officials.

“We have to get our students back in school,” said Cassellius. “And in order to make this happen, as scheduled, we need the help of all Bostonians. Let’s all do our part.”

One of the key components to reopening schools will be continuing to administer vaccinations.

“We are partnering with the state to ensure that vaccinations can happen according to prioritization and we’re doing everything we can to make them accessible,” said Martinez. “The city has vaccinated over 1,100 first responders and there are more scheduled for today and tomorrow that will continue through next week.”

Per the state's plan, the second phase of vaccinations will be available to seniors, K-12 educators, and additional essential workers.

“Our mass vaccination sites include planning at Fenway Park, and conversations with healthcare providers to look at the Reggie Lewis Center at Roxbury Community College,” said Martinez.

When asked about the public health risk associated with the possibility of a special election, which would be triggered if Walsh vacates his post before March 5, Martinez said the city would do “everything to keep the community safe.”

“The decision of whether or not there’s a special election is not up to us as city officials,” Martinez said. “If there is a special election we will replicate what we did in the city to keep people safe when they voted last year.”

In response to a question about reports that Martinez might be weighing a mayoral run himself in 2021, he had this to say:

“I’ve been focused this entire year on leading the covid response and I’m proud of the work we’ve done but there is much more to do. The next mayor who’s elected to the city of Boston will have a huge responsibility to make sure we can finish this response and get to an equitable recovery, and I’m absolutely considering running for mayor.”