Friday, May 24, 2024

The line at a Dec. 15 vaccine clinic at the CambridgeSide mall. (Photo: Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui via Facebook)

Offering a $75 debit card to people who get vaccinated against Covid turned out to be a great success in terms of racial and ethnic diversity as well as numbers, city health officials reported Monday. More than half of the 833 people who got a Covid shot at the city’s Dec. 15 clinic at CambridgeSide mall were black, Hispanic, Asian or multiracial, according to figures presented to the City Council by chief public health officer Derrick Neal. It helped boost figures among some demographics where vaccinations lagged.

And all but about 25 people who got their first or second shot – the primary series that first became available at the end of 2020 – got the new bivalent booster, Neal said. Low uptake of the booster in Cambridge prompted city councillors to ask city officials Dec. 5 to try scheduling a special vaccination clinic that would offer money in return for shots in arms.

Neal said 80 percent of clinic visitors lived in Cambridge, and they came “from every neighborhood,” with most from North Cambridge. Some may have been in need of money for the holiday, he said, recounting the overheard comment of the daughter of a “young African-American mother” near the end of the line: “This means we can have Christmas,” Neal said.

The debit card was a good inducement for vaccination for many, vice mayor Alanna Mallon said. “I spoke to a number of people in the community this weekend who had just been putting it off – like, ‘I hadn’t had time, it was never the right time,’” Mallon said. “There were so many people who were like, ‘This was such a great motivator to get me over there and to just get it done before the holidays,’ and in time for it to start working and keep our family safe this winter.”

Having the clinic at the CambridgeSide mall was helpful, City Manager Yi-An Huang said, as “the volume that we were able to go through would have been very difficult in many other locations.”

Masking against higher numbers

Neal’s other news was not as good. Levels of Covid in local sewage showed a “sharp spike” last week, and levels remained high in wastewater from the northern section of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s service area, considered a more reliable indicator of future Covid cases than the Cambridge numbers. Public health officials rely on sewage data because many people now use rapid home tests to diagnose themselves with Covid, and those results aren’t reported to government health agencies.

If Middlesex County moves into the high-transmission category because of case numbers and hospitalizations, “we will issue a formal mask advisory,” Neal said. “But there’s no need for residents to wait for a formal ask – you can protect yourself and your loved ones by masking up indoors while traveling, shopping and enjoying holiday festivities.” The city ended its indoor mask mandate in March but has continued to encourage masking, especially for people facing more risk from infection, such as those over 65 or who are immunocompromised.

Cambridge planned to reach out to neighboring communities “to explore a regional prevention approach,” Neal said.

Next phase in testing

Accepting the move to using home tests, the city will stop offering free PCR tests at a site in East Cambridge on Jan. 1, Neal said. Demand has dropped, he said. The city has signed a new contract with the private company that provided the testing, CIC Health, that will enable mobile testing and vaccination clinics, Neal said.

Meanwhile, Cambridge is considering providing another free testing site that would provide rapid antigen tests, not PCR tests, he said. The city is also figuring out how to distribute 60,000 free home tests beginning in January. On the vaccination front, the Cambridge Public Health Department will begin offering weekly flu and Covid vaccination clinics at its Windsor Street health center, he said. Officials may schedule another special vaccination clinic offering a financial incentive to take the shot, Neal said.

Multiple illnesses

Covid isn’t the only infectious disease threat, Neal said. “Flu activity continues to be worrisome,” he said, presenting a graph showing a sharp increase in doctor visits for influenzalike illness statewide. The burst is earlier and higher than any in recent years – and Monday’s meeting saw two officials participating remotely because of illness. Lisa Dobberteen, medical director of the Cambridge Public Health Department, said she had Covid; councillor Marc McGovern didn’t specify what was ailing him. 

“The health care system is feeling the strain,” Neal said. “We ask that even if you test negative for Covid, please stay home or wear a mask if you are feeling sick. We want to try to flatten the curve and make sure that everyone can access the health care system when they need it.”