With health care providers across Massachusetts facing rising COVID-19 caseloads, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration said Tuesday it was instructing Massachusetts hospitals to postpone or cancel all non-essential elective procedures. The governor also plans to activate up to 500 Massachusetts National Guard troops to help hospitals in the state.

The measures were announced as officials across the state prepare for another surge in Covid cases, as the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus arrives in Massachusetts at the same time that many families are beginning to gather for end-of-year holidays.

The president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, Katie Murphy, said both measures will help relieve pressure in emergency rooms, which she said are already “bursting at the seams.”

“We've got to bring the sick patients in,” Murphy said, “so unfortunately, the elective surgeries are going to have to be put off again.”

The measures announced by Baker will take effect on Monday, marking the first time during the pandemic that the Massachusetts National Guard has been deployed en masse to acute care hospitals, Murphy said. They will lend extra help providing security, delivering meals or transporting patients and medical supplies.

Murphy, an intensive care nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said that’s a sign of how severe staffing shortages have gotten during the pandemic.

“Some nurses have six or seven patients at a time,” she said. “It's really working in these conditions that has made nurses leave.”

Caseloads are only expected to rise as people travel and socialize on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, the state’s intensive care units are almost filled to capacity already. Data from the state Department of Public Health shows nearly 90% of hospital beds in southeastern Massachusetts are currently occupied, and the number of Covid cases recorded statewide is fast approaching the threshold reached during the peak of infections last January.

A spokesperson for Southcoast Health, which manages a network of hospitals in New Bedford, Fall River and Wareham, said all non-emergency medical procedures have been postponed until after December 31.

"Like many hospitals and health care systems across the Commonwealth, Southcoast Health is experiencing a significant increase in demand for critical care and acute inpatient beds as a result of the increased spread of COVID-19, coupled with an influx of more severe non-COVID patients arriving at our facilities, after delaying care during the pandemic,” Kaitlyn Cox, Southcoast Health’s spokesperson, said in a statement.

The Baker administration said this week it started to distribute millions of free, at-home rapid tests to communities hit hardest by the pandemic, including Fall River and New Bedford. The governor is encouraging people to test themselves for the coronavirus before attending any gatherings with family or friends.

Fall River has already shared many of the tests the city received with public schools, providers of public housing, food pantries, religious congregations and several community-based nonprofits. Another 15,000 tests will be distributed free of charge on Wednesday at fire stations in Fall River to people who can provide proof of residency.

New Bedford’s free rapid tests will be available for city residents at schools and libraries.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the city is also considering reopening an overflow facility for Covid patients in case hospitals become overwhelmed during the holidays.

A return to virtual learning in the New Bedford Public Schools is also on the table.

“We're going to have to be really sensitive about what happens upon the return from Christmas break to ensure that we don't continue to fuel a surge by bringing kids back into what's already sort of a volatile environment,” Mitchell said. “Hybrid learning is better than no learning, but it's a poor substitute for actually being in the classroom.”

Baker stopped short of bringing back a statewide mask mandate, though requirements to mask remain in place in healthcare facilities, congregate care settings, most schools and all modes of mass transportation, including rideshares.

“I have no interest in putting a mandate on this issue given all the tools that are available on a statewide basis,” Baker said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Instead, Baker stressed the effectiveness of the Covid vaccine, calling it the most important tool available for minimizing the disease’s impact. He cited new data from the state Department of Public Health, which he said shows that 97% of breakthrough cases for vaccinated people in Massachusetts did not result in hospitalization.

Baker said the data also shows that unvaccinated people are 31 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus than a fully vaccinated individual with a booster shot.

“The testing tools, vaccinations and many of the other tools we have make it possible for people to gather safely,” Baker said. “We just need to use them and use them appropriately.”

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.