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Massachusetts on 'back side' of latest COVID surge, Gov. Baker says

Gov. Baker at podium

Gov. Charlie Baker expressed optimism on Thursday that the state has emerged from the worst of the latest peak of COVID-19 cases. "We are definitely on what I'd call the back side of the omicron surge," Baker said in an interview on GBH News's "Boston Public Radio."

BOSTON — After peaking at a record level in early January, the statewide average for newly confirmed COVID-19 cases has dropped by more than two-thirds, a turnaround that prompted Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday to say the state has reached “the back side of the omicron surge.”

The Department of Public Health’s most recent seven-day average of confirmed cases per day remains elevated at 6,602, but that represents a substantial drop from the high point of 23,130 on Jan. 8. Hospitalizations, which tend to lag behind changes in infections, have also started to trend downward after a sustained rising period that imposed enormous strain on emergency departments.

Citing the latest DPH reports as well as data showing a reduced prevalence of the virus in Boston-area wastewater, Baker expressed optimism that the state has emerged from the worst of the latest peak.

“We are definitely on what I’d call the back side of the omicron surge,” Baker said in an interview on GBH News’s “Boston Public Radio,” where he also defended his administration’s efforts to keep mask mandates in place in a limited number of settings as a “more effective strategy.”

Baker noted that more than 90 percent of the state’s eligible population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, calling the shots “enormously effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization and death.”

Massachusetts continues to vaccinate “roughly 20,000 to 40,000 people per day,” Baker said, counting both the primary doses and additional booster shots.

As of Thursday, more than 2.6 million Bay Staters had received a booster dose, representing just more than half of the 5.18 million who already received both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Eligibility rules mean that many residents who finished their primary vaccination in late summer or fall still do not qualify to receive a booster.

“You’re never going to get all the way there on boosters because boosters are five or six months after your second shot,” Baker said.

“Our booster rate, by the way, I believe is highest in the country among all 50 states,” he added.

Baker pointed to the state’s progress on vaccinations as he once again voiced skepticism about the value of reinstating a broader mask mandate for public spaces, a step that Senate President Karen Spilka supported Tuesday and said would be more efficient if implemented by the administration rather than the Legislature.

Masks remain required in some settings, such as congregate care, public transit and many schools, although a regulatory change the Baker administration quietly rolled out this month allows unvaccinated students to join the unmasked in a small number of schools.

“What we have pursued is what I would describe as a targeted approach where we think it’s important to have that type of requirement in place,” Baker said. “We think that’s a more effective strategy at this point because we actually have some ability to deliver on that, and it is focused on the populations that we believe are most at risk.”

Baker and his top deputies have resisted calls from legislative Democrats and from some public health advocates to bring back a universal mask mandate. At a Jan. 11 oversight hearing, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said New York state’s “COVID cases are through the roof” despite its wide-reaching mask requirement.

“I don’t know, other than further frustrating people in the public, what a mask mandate would do, a universal mask mandate,” she said.

Both the House and Senate each approved legislation over the past two weeks that would spend tens of millions of dollars on expanding COVID-19 testing, vaccination efforts and mask availability.

Lawmakers touted the bills — with bottom lines of $55 million in the House version (H 4345) and $75 million in the Senate (S 2622) — as an urgent response to time-sensitive needs on the ground in many Massachusetts communities.

However, the legislation will not reach Baker’s desk until next week at the earliest after the Senate on Thursday adjourned for the weekend without reaching an agreement with the House or appointing a conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

In August, Baker ordered all executive branch employees to provide proof that they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or face discipline up to and including termination. Workers had until Oct. 17 to submit that proof.

Baker on Thursday said “somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500” of the 41,000 workers subject to the order “either left or were asked to leave” because of their non-compliance with the order. That figure is up from the 988 worker departures the administration disclosed in late December.

“We have enforced this pretty aggressively,” Baker said, expressing “surprise” that a GBH caller identified as “James from Worcester” said the executive branch mandate was not being followed in his office.

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