WORCESTER — Though numbers still remain high, COVID-19 cases in the city over the past week fell below peak, while a long-awaited milestone of having 60% of residents fully vaccinated was reached, officials said during a weekly coronavirus press conference Friday at City Hall.
With 3,968 new cases since last week's press conference here, the city has fallen below the all-time high numbers recorded over the past couple of weeks.
Worcester has recorded 49,033 cases since the start of the pandemic. The city also added four additional deaths from the disease since last week, for a total of 486.
Since Thursday, the city recorded 482 new cases. The city's positivity rate at testing sites is 17%, down from 23% two weeks ago, but still well above the target of under 5%.
UMass Memorial Health and St. Vincent Hospital have a combined count of 328 people hospitalized with COVID-19, down by 21 from last week, and 73 in the ICU, up by 13 from last week.
Between the two health systems, 21 people have died due to COVID-19 since last week.
"As the cases go down, that's good. But we'll probably continue to see some increase in hospitalizations, ICU and deaths," City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said. "Those tend to be lagging indicators."
Vaccination milestone reached
The city finally crossed the threshold of 60% of its population being fully vaccinated, an increase in 1% since last week.
Additionally, 70% of city residents has received at least one dose of a vaccine, up 1%, as well.
For boosters, 39% of the city's eligible population has gotten a booster dose, up 3% from last week.
Augustus added that Worcester matches the statewide percentage for residents who have received their booster.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty noted that this week has seen hundreds of cases a day, still a high number but below prior weeks where thousands of cases could be reported in a day.
Augustus said the seven-day average for cases in Worcester is 566, down about 100 from last week but still more than double the previous peak.
One bright spot is that the number of city employees out of work due to COVID-19 is down to 21, Augustus said.
N95 masks to be made available
Augustus said that residents will soon be able to pick up free N95 masks. The federal government has pledged to make 400 million N95 masks available.
While details on distribution have not yet been shared, Augustus said the masks will likely be available for free at city pharmacies and health centers.
In order to enforce Worcester's mask mandate, the city has issued 135 fines to businesses or organizations, 153 verbal warnings, and the city has visited 515 businesses and organization.
City Medical Director Dr. Michael P. Hirsh reiterated the cautious optimism that city officials expressed last week, but he said that medical staff are still feeling the burden of hospitals filled with patients and are reporting low morale.
"The burden of this really huge influx of omicron-positive patients is very taxing to the health care staff and morale is pretty low," Hirsh said.
Ominous 2-year anniversary
Friday was the two-year anniversary of COVID-19 being detected in the U.S., and Hirsh reflected on the city's response to COVID in that time.
The city spent 2020 recruiting for its vaccine corps to distribute the vaccine in 2021, which had an initial boom in demand before interest cooled down, Hirsh said.
Hirsh said that the city took initial warnings very seriously and that Augustus activated city resources for preparation.
While restrictions began receding last May, the rise of the delta variant and later the omicron variant disrupted the country's return to normal
"I hope that everybody knows that this has been a two-year period of hell for everyone," Hirsh said.
The rise of variants that developed in other countries have shown the importance of bolstering access to vaccines in the rest of the world in order to fight variants, Hirsh said.
Periodic outbreaks could be the the foreseeable future for the country, Hirsh said, but he added that most residents should be alright if they maintain their booster regiment.
At St. Vincent Hospital, 70% of the hospitalized population with COVID-19 is unvaccinated, while 50% of the population is unvaccinated at UMass Memorial Health.
Hirsh said that only 10% of the hospitalized population that have received vaccinations got their boosters at both hospitals.
When asked about responding to the public potentially losing the willingness to get more shots, Hirsh said he expected future boosters to resemble flu shots, where the city asks residents to get their shots and only about 30% of the population does.
Hirsh added that little is known about any long-last effects from omicron, while it is well-studies that the flu is unlikely to cause long-lasting issues.
Neighboring Shrewsbury recorded an additional 513 cases from last week, and Grafton record an additional 214 cases.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: New COVID-19 cases decline in Worcester; 60% of city residents now fully vaccinated