Monday, June 24, 2024

A door at Cambridge City Hall says masks are encouraged. sign (Photo: Sue Reinert)

The city is requesting – not requiring – residents and city employees to mask up inside public buildings because of a surge in Covid-19 that could threaten hospitals, officials said Monday. “At this point it’s continued to be a strong recommendation and an ask of staff and people in our community,” City Manager Yi-An Huang told city councillors. “But it is not a mandate and not a requirement.”

Chief public health officer Derrick Neal said the increasing rate of hospital admissions for Covid has pushed Middlesex County into the high-risk category as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means all residents, not just those facing the most danger from the virus, should wear high-quality masks indoors in public spaces and people should consider testing themselves before visiting vulnerable friends and family, plus wear a mask during the visit, according to a public health report Neal presented at Monday’s council meeting..

“We’re at the point where hospitalizations are at a high level. We’re hopeful that vaccination rates and early treatment will help us to mitigate serious illness and deaths that result from this current surge.” Neal said.

“This is a third year in which we’ve seen an increase in hospitalizations in January. At this point, our hospitals are stressed but managing,” he said. “We want to help decrease the need for hospitalizations.”

Mount Auburn Hospital had only 4 percent of its 221 inpatient beds unoccupied as of the week of Jan. 3, according to the most recent federal data. Cambridge Health Alliance reported 30 percent of its 250 beds available.

Testing at home

There’s a new emphasis on rapid home tests for Covid. (Photo: Sue Thompson via Flickr)

The surge comes as the city has stopped offering free PCR tests to residents and people who work here and instead is providing free rapid antigen test kits to be used at home. Cambridge got another 60,000 rapid Covid home tests from the state on Friday, Neal said. For now, residents can pick tests up Monday through Friday in the lobby of the Cambridge Public Health Department at 119 Windsor St., public health department spokesperson Dawn Baxter said.

“We are finalizing the distribution details, but our plan is to distribute the tests broadly throughout the community via city and community partners, including City Hall, libraries, the Cambridge Housing Authority, child care providers, shelters and meals programs, community centers, senior centers, etc.,” Baxter said in an email.

The newly received tests expire in August, Baxter said. The city received a previous batch of 60,000 tests in October – which expire Jan. 26 – but gave them first to vulnerable populations in public housing developments and homeless shelters. By the time the distribution campaign broadened to offer tests to anyone at libraries and City Hall in late December, people had less than a month to use the kits.

Switch to antigen

Councillor Quinton Zondervan questioned the switch to antigen tests. The PCR tests are “more sensitive so someone may be able to find out sooner that they have Covid. And a lot of these treatments are more effective when they are taken the beginning of an infection,” he said.

Not so – PCR and antigen tests are equally good at detecting an infection, replied Neal and Dr. Lisa Dobberteen, medical director of the public health department. 

City manager Huang weighed in also, saying: “I do think at this point in the pandemic, there is a sense that rapid testing is as high-quality and would provide results much more quickly … given how much Covid is around and how transmissible it is, it’s important that people actually know more rapidly the results of their test.” He call PCR testing less convenient and needing a wait for lab results to come back, “sometimes 24 to 36 hours later, at which point if you’re positive, you’ve likely exposed a lot of people.” Most home antigen tests give results in 15 minutes.

Ending a contract

Cambridge was a leader in providing free PCR tests for Covid to its residents, at first on its own with fire department and ProEMS workers administering tests in churches and community centers. In December 2021, as the omicron variant began causing what would become an unprecedented surge of Covid cases, the city signed a contract with CIC Health to supplement its own program with free tests at the company’s site in Kendall Square. CIC Health was an offshoot of the workplace-sharing company Cambridge Innovation Center and was formed to provide nationwide Covid-19 services, including testing. CIC Health had started offering PCR tests to the public for $80 at the Kendall Square location in October 2020.

After Cambridge ended the city-run testing program last year, citing low demand, it continued its contract with CIC Health to offer free tests in Kendall Square seven days a week, by appointment. That ended Dec. 31 when the contract expired and was not amended, according to documents obtained under the public records law. City officials said the reason was low demand. Money could have played a part; the contract called for the city to pay for a minimum of 100 tests a day.

Neal told councillors Monday that the city “retained our ability to provide mobile [PCR] testing” if necessary; he didn’t say whether that would involve CIC Health. City officials have also said the CIC Health testing opportunity is no longer needed because residents can get PCR tests at pharmacies, doctors’ offices and elsewhere.