New York State In-depth

Suffolk County jumps to high COVID risk amid ‘very transmissible’ XBB variant

Suffolk County’s COVID risk has risen back to “high,” according to the CDC, as the new highly contagious XBB.1.5 Omicron variant spreads across the region and post-holiday hospitalizations increase.

Boston health officials are asking residents to take precautions amid the post-holiday surge and are urging people to dress up and fortify themselves.

The CDC recently raised the risk level of the COVID community in Suffolk County from moderate to high. This follows an increase in COVID sewage levels in the Boston area and an increase in reported virus cases and hospitalizations.

More than 70% of new COVID cases in New England are linked to subvariant XBB.1.5, according to the CDC’s latest variant tracker update.

“We’re seeing a new spike in cases and a new variant that appears to be very transmissible,” said Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. “In light of this, we have to go back to the things that we know work.

“The most important thing is to make sure everyone is up to date on their boosters, or get vaccinated if they aren’t vaccinated,” Fox said. “Group settings should consider reintroducing masking for the period of surge. And as always, we should invest in good ventilation.”

COVID sewage levels in the Boston area have spiked during the holiday season and it’s the first sign of a virus wave.

COVID hospitalizations have risen across Massachusetts. By the end of last week, Boston hospitals were reporting 306 new COVID-related hospitalizations — a 41% increase over the past two weeks.

“Based on trends, it is imperative that we all protect ourselves and others,” said Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “I understand there is a very high level of pandemic fatigue, but the numbers speak for themselves.

“We should all mask indoors, stay home if sick, and test for COVID-19,” Ojikutu added. “In addition, a booster is the best way to protect against serious illness and hospitalization.”

Boston hospitals are already under increased strain due to the combination of COVID and other respiratory viral infections, including the flu.

Only 13.7% of Boston residents received the omicron-specific bivalent booster shot. The Boston Public Health Commission has established several locations where residents can obtain COVID vaccines and boosters, flu shots, and PCR testing for COVID.

As part of the state’s Vaccine Equity Initiative, BPHC is offering $75 gift cards to those who receive a COVID vaccine or booster while supplies last. These locations include: Boston City Hall; BCYF Hyde Park; Lena Park Community Development Company; Community Center Josephine Fiorentino; and Bruce C. Bolling Building.

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