MCPS Food Service Worker Tests Positive
COVID-19 Cases Reach 316,699 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Friday morning, 16,334 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 641 deaths; there have been 135,127 cases in Maryland with 3,891 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 165,238 cases with 3,422 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
A Montgomery County Public Schools food and nutrition services staff member reported a positive COVID-19 test Friday. In a press release Friday, MCPS said the employee last worked at Glen Haven Elementary School in Wheaton on Oct. 14. The employee wore a mask and gloves while working at the school’s distribution site. According to the release, discussions with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services have determined that students’ and families’ risk levels are low. However, the school district is asking people who visited the school on Oct. 14 or earlier to monitor themselves for symptoms. Employees who worked with the employee in the last week are asked to self-quarantine for two weeks. MCPS did not say if they would ask employees to take coronavirus tests before returning to work. The school district uses its food and nutrition service staff to make and deliver lunches to students while classes are being held virtually. The distribution site was to be cleaned over the weekend. MCPS said food distribution would resume on Monday.
Outdoor sports venues in Maryland, such as FedEx Field and M&T Bank Stadium, may reopen to the public with limited capacity. Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order Friday that will allow spectators to attend games in person, up to 10% of the stadium’s total capacity. The expanded capacity limits also come with new rules from Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall. Face coverings and social distancing will be mandatory at the venues and social gatherings like tailgating will not be allowed. Local officials said they are reviewing the order. FedEx Field, where the Washington Football Team plays, is located in Prince George’s County, which has not moved into Phase Three of the state’s reopening plan. It is unclear how that will affect the governor’s order. Under the county’s current Phase Two rules, crowds at outdoor events are limited to one person or family per 200 square feet or 50 people maximum. FedEx Field has the capacity to house about 82,000 fans, and 10% of that would be more than 8,000 people. M&T Bank Stadium has a capacity of about 70,000 fans; 10% of that would be about 7,000. “We are reviewing the governor’s order and our health officials will be in conversation with the Washington Football Team to determine next steps,” a county spokesperson said in an email. Baltimore City officials said they are discussing the governor’s order with community stakeholders “to accommodate these new adjustments safely for all residents and visitors of Baltimore City.” In a press release announcing the change, Hogan said, “With our key health metrics low and stable, we are taking steps to allow more spectators, including fans of the Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Football Team, to safely attend games in the stands. It remains important to continue following all of the mitigation measures and public health protocols that keep us safe, including wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.” Hogan’s order also eases attendance restrictions for college and high school athletics. The governor’s order said they may also allow in person attendance, under similar rules laid out for outdoor sporting venues in the state. Colleges may allow in-person attendance up to 25% capacity, so long as the audience is entirely made up of students and faculty of the college, the college has a COVID-19 testing policy that tests at least 15% of its population per week, the percent positivity of the college community does not rise above 0.25% and temperatures must be taken on the way in to detect possible infections. Other rules announced by Hogan ease some restriction on outdoor entertainment venues. Venues with a maximum occupancy of more than 2,500 will be limited to 10% of their capacity.
Montgomery County officials are temporarily pausing plans to further relax coronavirus-related restrictions as the public health team investigates a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. Overall, the number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 hit more than 10 in recent days, the highest level since early August, County Executive Marc Elrich said Thursday. An area with a case rate of more than 10 is categorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a high rate of transmission, Elrich noted during an online news briefing and “is the point where you don’t want to be.” The last time the county’s case rate was above 10 was in early August. Coronavirus hospitalizations in the county — a three-day average of 86 people currently hospitalized, according to county data — are also at their highest level in two months. Hospitalizations of people with serious illnesses typically lag behind increases in cases. “Our goal is to avoid the spikes that other people are having,” Elrich said. “That is territory we do not want to go into.” Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said the county is sticking with Phase Two of its coronavirus reopening plan for now and not going backward, but that it is putting plans to ease some other restrictions on hold. The county is pausing work on an executive order that would have allowed escape rooms to reopen and relaxed restrictions on attendance at youth sports activities and live performances, modeled on a similar pilot program in D.C. with limited capacity. “We need to investigate and find out exactly what the causes (for the uptick) are before we can feel comfortable moving forward,” said Stoddard, who explained county leaders didn’t want to send “potentially mixed messaging that we’re seeing an uptick in cases, but we’re opening more things up.” He said the numbers now don’t necessitate rolling back existing Phase Two rules for now. “It’s not just the number of cases, but the rate at which they’re increasing,” Stoddard said. “If you look at our current charts, the slope of the lines is changing.” If the numbers keep rising over next few weeks or so, Stoddard said, “I think we’d be having much more serious conversations about where exactly we were.” County officials are reaching out to their regional counterparts, since any decision to revert to more stringent restrictions would likely be a regional decision. “We’re not talking about going back to lockdown, but we are talking about going back to a more restrictive environment,” Elrich said. If restrictions are tightened, the county would look first at curtailing or limiting indoor gatherings, especially those that draw larger crowds, and any indoor gathering where people have to remove face coverings, such as dining, Stoddard said. “Those are the highest-risk events.” he said. Elrich said the county could also strengthen rules on late-night alcohol sales, which were recently loosened. “The truth is that every single thing you do (to relax rules) adds cases,” he said, because anything that provides opportunities to come into contact with each other increases the risk of transmission. The county is now averaging more than 100 coronavirus cases a day. One bright spot is the test positivity rate — the percentage of positive tests — which is now at 3.2%. That is well below a World Health Organization benchmark of 5%. However, it is slightly higher than last week’s 2.9%.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich defended his administration’s handling of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 aid after the county council criticized his office for failing to get assistance to needy residents sooner. During Thursday’s weekly briefing on COVID-19, Elrich was asked why just $607,000 of $20 million in rent relief and eviction prevention had been spent. “I used to be a legislator, and it’s the best job in the world because you can just say, ‘I want to spend this money,’ and tell someone to go spend it. And you don’t actually figure out how to do it,” said Elrich, who was previously on County Council. “If we don’t do this right, and we get audited by the federal government for the CARES Act spending, and we do not spend money on eligible people, then we are going to be responsible for paying back that money.” Elrich said it took time to set the programs up and lay out the rules and eligibility criteria. “The criteria can’t be anybody who asks for money gets money,” he added. He also said that applications for aid had to be vetted. “I’ll note that of about the first 1,100 applications or so, half of them were ineligible,” saying some did not experience income loss and others did not meet income eligibility guidelines. Elrich said he had been updating the members of the county council by sending them a weekly spreadsheet, which he said they have been getting for weeks now. On Tuesday, council members made clear they wanted more communication. Council member Craig Rice called the suggestion that members had all the information in the weekly documents flippant. “That’s not how this works,” Rice said, explaining that better communication could allow for more collaboration on processing aid.
More than 43,000 home health workers in Virginia are eligible to receive a one-time, $1,500 hazard payment for working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who took care of Medicaid beneficiaries between March 12-June 30 can receive the payments, which will be overseen in the coming weeks by the commonwealth’s Department of Medical Assistance Services, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday in a press release. The federal CARES Act authorized $73 million in funding for the payments, according to Northam’s office. In the statement, the governor praised home health workers, saying their jobs put them at higher risk of catching the coronavirus. “[T]his hazard payment is a way we can acknowledge that they put themselves in harm’s way to help others,” he said. The commonwealth is providing home health aides with personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. Its most recent budget also raises their wages 7% over two years, according to Northam’s office. Most home health workers in the commonwealth are women of color, and many took care of older residents when nursing homes saw coronavirus outbreaks in the spring. David Broder, the president of Service Employees International Union Virginia 512, which represents personal care attendants, said the hazard payments “will support families and keep overall costs down for our healthcare system.” The payments will be made pre-tax.
A series of OmniRide service reductions could be the first sign of long-term trouble for the transit operator as 2020 and federal money that has helped it maintain service through the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end. Last week, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which operates the bus service, announced a host of changes to reduce expenses that will take effect Nov. 2. Three commuter routes – Dale City to Mark Center, Lake Ridge to Mark Center and Woodbridge VRE to Tysons Corner – will be suspended until further notice. A number of other commuter lines will be moved to a reduced Friday schedule, including three Dale City lines, Haymarket to Rosslyn, Gainesville to Washington and the South Route 1 line. A spokesperson for OmniRide said the changes and service levels would remain in place for the foreseeable future, to be re-evaluated in 2021. PRTC Board Chair and Woodbridge District Supervisor Margaret Franklin said the reductions are intended to help the bus service stave off potential payroll reductions amid lower revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic. CARES Act funding has kept the transit service whole through the pandemic, but that funding runs out at the end of the year. Without another deal in Congress that helps to close the budget gap in the next fiscal year, more service cuts and layoffs would probably be necessary. OmniRide officials couldn’t say exactly how big the hole might be for the next fiscal year, but Franklin said that if no federal assistance arrives for states and localities, as well as the transit agencies they help fund, the system could have to make more drastic operating reductions, including staff and service. The system should have a better sense of what the worst-case scenario looks like when it completes a fiscal audit that will be presented to the PRTC board at its next meeting in November. “In order to maintain a level of financial stability, cutting some of the routes that are not getting as much service makes the most sense,” Franklin told InsideNoVa. “We’re going to do things like that until we get to a place where we have to make some more dire decisions. But right now we’re fine, but we have to do things like that so we don’t get to a red spot.” OmniRide has seen a significant decline with many people who work in Washington telecommuting instead. OmniRidge spokesperson Alyssa Ludwiczak said ridership on the whole is still down by about half, with commuter numbers down 80%. For the three routes that were cut, it was down about 90%. At the most recent PRTC board meeting, OmniRide Executive Director Bob Schneider said he hopes Congress could reach some sort of deal in the lame-duck session after the November election or at the start of the new Congress in 2021. “We were very hopeful there would be some kind of CARES package,” Schneider said at the Oct. 1 board meeting. “We are not unique in this situation regarding transit concerns.” Between declining toll revenues along Interstate 66 to fund the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s Commuter Choice program, lower fuel tax revenues, local budget tightening and diminished farebox revenues for transit, the whole region could be facing a steep decline in available funds for transportation operations and improvements in the next fiscal year.
D.C. residents may be getting too lax at following health safety guidelines, a warning that is being echoed across the DMV and the county. D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said at a press conference Wednesday that city contact tracers interviewed 374 people who received positive tests between Oct. 2-8 and asked what activities they participated in the two weeks before the onset of their symptoms or test date. Almost 25% of those surveyed reported they had attended social events or parties of more than five people hosted by a close friend of family member just before testing positive. Of those, about 63% reported that health safety guidelines, such as wearing a mask, standing at least 6 feet apart and staying outside, were not properly followed. About 20% of these gatherings had more than 20 people. “This suggests to us … that people are very comfortable with becoming relaxed when they attend gatherings that are hosted by their friends and family,” Nesbitt said. About 22% of the people reported they had gone into the office, while 21% had patronized restaurants and bars. More than 17% said they had traveled outside the DMV. About 6% said they had gone to faith-based events, like worship services, according to Nesbitt. Another 6% reported some sort of personal care activity, like going to a nail salon or the gym. None of the categories distinguished between activities that took place inside or outside. Health officials say all these activities can pose elevated risks for contracting COVID-19 as people may be within 6 feet of each other for extended periods of time. Specific patients may account for multiple categories: A person could have gone into work and also attended a birthday party, for example. About 26% of those interviewed said they had only done one such activity, 15% said they had done two and 9% had done three or more. About half of the people said they hadn’t done any of the high-risk activities, although they could have done less-risky things, such as going to the grocery store or hanging out with a small group of friends. “We want people to still recognize the importance of maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask any time you are with people who are not part of your household, even if they are relatives and close friends,” Nesbitt said, adding that those guidelines also apply to the workplace.
A federal judge in Richmond ruled that Virginia must extend online and in-person voter registration until 11:59 p.m. today. The order comes after a construction project accidentally cut a fiber internet line yesterday that took down several state websites, including the Department of Elections website on the last day of voter registration. U.S. Judge John A. Gibney Jr. made the ruling early Wednesday morning in a lawsuit brought by several voter rights groups. “There’s really not a lot of harm to the Commonwealth and the state registrars by extending the period of registration in this case,” Gibney Jr. said in the teleconference hearing, “but there is tremendous harm to the people who want to register to vote and to the people who are helping people register to vote.” Voter advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday to extend Virginia’s deadline. “Eligible Virginia citizens should not have to pay the price for this technological failure. Unless the voter registration deadline is extended to October 15, 2020, plaintiffs’ members and others will be deprived of their constitutional right to vote in the November 3, 2020, election,” read the suit filed by the New Virginia Majority Education Fund, the Virginia Civic Engagement Table and the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Problems began early Tuesday morning when voters noticed they could not access online registration. The Virginia Information Technologies Agency said the problem was due to a Verizon fiber optic cable that “had been inadvertently struck” during work on a utility project in Chester, Va. According to Andrea Gaines, a spokesperson for the Virginia Board of Elections, the fiber cable impacted “data circuits and virtual private network (VPN) connectivity for multiple Commonwealth agencies,” including local registrar’s offices. Service was restored by 3:30 p.m. Gov. Ralph Northam said the registration deadline was set in code and couldn’t be adjusted without court intervention. Unlike D.C. and Maryland, which allow same-day registration in early voting and on Election Day, Virginia does not.
Seven Montgomery County restaurants have been denied a permit to serve alcohol after 10 p.m. The County Council voted last week to amend the county’s executive order on COVID-19 restrictions, so that restaurants could serve alcohol until midnight — two hours later than was previously allowed. The amendment, which the council adopted as a board of health regulation, requires that businesses designate or hire an employee or contractor whose sole responsibility is to monitor and enforce physical distancing and face-covering requirements; ensure that all alcoholic beverages are off all tables and collected from customers by midnight; suspend the sale or provision of alcoholic beverages after midnight; and follow all protocols and guidance issued by the health department and the Board of License Commissioners (known as the liquor board) related to the permit program. Restaurants that have been previously cited for violating COVID-19 restrictions are not eligible for the permit if the violations were for any of the above safety-related concerns. According to the county’s Alcohol Beverage Services department, the restaurants denied a permit are Hakuna Matata Grill, Unplugged Restaurant & Sports Bar, La Rumba Restaurant and El Puente de Oro, all in Wheaton; Amy Tex Mex Bar & Grill and Golf Ultra Lounge in Silver Spring; and A.C. Grill in Gaithersburg. Some of the restaurants applied and were denied multiple times. Hakuna Matata Grill was cited during an inspection last weekend for allowing alcohol to be “placed on tables” after 10 p.m., according to an inspection report from Oct. 10. Additionally, the report stated that customers were not social distancing and some were dancing under a covered white tent outside the restaurant. Hakuna Matata Grill was cited for dancing before, the report stated. A restaurant that was cited for several infractions on Saturday was among the restaurants that were approved for the new permits. Plan B Bar and Grill in Wheaton was cited for allowing dancing, not maintaining social distancing and allowing some customers not to wear masks. Kenneth Welch, the environmental health manager for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said on Wednesday that ABS issued a permit to Plan B last week prior to Saturday’s inspection. He said under the county’s regulation, county officials have the right to revoke a business’s permit if they are cited for a COVID-19 safety violation. No decision has been made on whether to revoke Plan B’s permit, Welch said Wednesday. About 170 businesses in the county were approved for the alcohol permit as of Tuesday afternoon. Another 11 applications were pending.
While still potentially months away, D.C. is beginning to lay out its plans for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said Wednesday that when doses first become available and are in limited supply, city health officials will focus on getting those most in danger of serious illness inoculated first. “Early on, there is going to be a need to reach the groups who are the most vulnerable in terms of their risk of morbidity and mortality, as well as their exposure to the virus,” she said. She also said that assuring people that the vaccine is effective and safe will be a high priority. “We need to ensure that [residents] actually have confidence in the vaccine,” Nesbitt said. “So if we have identified them as a priority group for getting the vaccine when there are limited quantities available, that they actually want to get the vaccine.”
To help improve contact tracing for students who have tested positive for COVID-19, the University System of Maryland is joining the Chesapeake Regional Information System for our Patients (CRISP), a regional health information exchange that connects healthcare providers and the Maryland Department of Health. USM said Wednesday that all test results will be shared with its campuses partnered with CRISP, but in an aggregate and unspecified way in order to protect student privacy. To avoid repeated outreach efforts, contract tracers at state and local health departments will be told if the infected person is a student. Typically, the state health department would call a person who tested positive and ask series of questions, including whether or not they are a student. If the student self-reports, the university or local health department might reach out to the student and conduct the same contact tracing process again. By pulling the student out of the standard queue and into a student queue, the health information exchange will help save contact tracers time and energy, Craig Behm, the Maryland executive director for CRISP, said. “CRISP specializes in collecting sensitive healthcare information and then making it available for treating clinicians and similarly approved users,” Behm said in a press release. “While the universities are not a technically complicated setup, they are an exciting new way to leverage our exchange system.” Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County began to share data with CRISP this week, while other USM institutions are expected to join later. “Working with CRISP allows us to be more proactive in how we use critical health data and accelerate the steps we take to protect the communities in which our students live and learn. We can’t guarantee COVID-free campuses, but we can be smart about how we work with the data we have to mitigate disease spread and lower the risk of infection,” USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman said in the press release.
Consumers expecting seasonal fall and holiday discounts at Virginia’s state-run liquor stores are in for a disappointment. Citing a concern about a “lack of social distancing,” the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority CEO Travis Hill said holding one-day sales such as “Door Busters,” “Spirited Thursdays,” “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” whether online or in-store, adds further strain on customers and employees. The move is being made “in order to provide a sales experience that accounts for safety and convenience in these challenging times,” Hill said. “We have worked hard to create a shopping environment that is safe for our customers and employees, and we want to keep it that way.” He said because of the coronavirus pandemic, the industry faces some issues. Some distilled spirits suppliers have inventory challenges. “Due to the uncertainty of this health crisis, we are unable to forecast which products will be impacted and for how long. It wouldn’t be fair to our customers to offer our usual holiday promotions and have a number of products out-of-stock,” Hill said in a letter to customers. “Additionally, we are in the final stages … to transition to a new data center that is expected to upgrade our technical capabilities in many areas, including our website. We are halting all short-term promotional sales offered online until we can stabilize our systems in the new data center and can ensure the website is ready for a cyber event that delivers an experience that is up to all of our standards,” Hill said. He encouraged consumers look for “the multiple in-store and online savings opportunities we have planned on hundreds of products throughout the holidays.” He said online ordering is still available and monthly front counter display and “Mini Monday” promotions will “take place as planned.”
Montgomery County Council members on Tuesday questioned why County Executive Marc Elrich had only spent a fraction of the millions of dollars in aid for residents hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. According to a staff report, council appropriated $64.91 million in coronavirus relief funds, but the county has only spent $7.26 million. The federal funds must be spent by Dec. 31. In a briefing, Richard Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, and Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told council members that federal regulations to access aid had become increasingly stringent. Madaleno said that in the past, getting federal funding and reimbursements was a relatively simple process. “We all lived through, you know, Snowmageddon and the Snowpocalypse. There was an emergency, and we got FEMA dollars.” But, he said, “We’re now dealing with a federal administration who is telling you it didn’t snow.” Stoddard told council, “My experience with FEMA is generally that if they can find a reason not to reimburse you for something, they’re going to find it.” He said fulfilling federal requirements to demonstrate a need for aid was taking much longer than expected. But Council President Sidney Katz wasn’t convinced. “We can blame whoever we want, and we should, but we need to make certain that the money that we’re deserving of is the money that we’re getting,” Katz said. Looking over figures provided by Elrich’s office that showed a fraction of the millions appropriated for aid to residents had been spent, council member Andrew Friedson, said “I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for the 1.1 million residents who are desperately trying to get through the most challenging time in our lifetimes.” Council member Nancy Navarro pointed out that just $607,000 of $20 million earmarked for rental assistance and eviction prevention had been allocated. “There’s just no excuse for the fact that so much of this money has not been out there,” she said. “What are these people supposed to do in the meantime?” Council member Tom Hucker expressed surprise that Elrich didn’t attend the briefing to address the council directly. “This is the most important stuff facing the county — this is food and shelter,” Hucker said. Stoddard told council that he accepted some of the blame for not being able to get “money out the door” faster. “I could have done better in recognizing what we weren’t doing well,” said Stoddard. But council member Craig Rice said, “I appreciate you saying that, but the reality is — and any boss knows this — that ultimately the buck stops with them.” Council member Gabe Albornoz said he recognized that the workload to process aid requests was unprecedented, but that the council should have been informed of the Elrich administration’s need for more assistance. “We’re setting everybody up for failure right now, and it’s not fair,” Albornoz said. Elrich sought to provide rental assistance and eviction protection with a $20 million appropriation in federal CARES Act funds in July.
The men charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also discussed Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam as a possible target, an FBI agent said in a Michigan court on Tuesday. Special Agent Richard Trask testified that two of the defendants had a meeting in Ohio in June where they discussed targeting state leaders over their COVID-19 restrictions. “At this meeting, they discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governors of Michigan and Virginia, based upon the lockdown orders,” Trask said. He didn’t give an indication that the men made further plans to kidnap Northam, and no one has been charged with trying to kidnap the governor. Northam, a Democrat, faced criticism from Republicans, including President Donald Trump, over measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Virginia. “I will not work under a cloud of intimidation. It’s not who I am,” Northam said Tuesday at a press conference. He previously served in the U.S. Army in Iran. “What is different, which is now concerning to me, is that the people who are making comments and the rhetoric about our elected officials…are not coming from another country, it is coming from Washington. And that I regret, and that has got to stop.” It was Northam’s first public appearance since his own coronavirus diagnosis late last month. Earlier Tuesday, a Northam spokesperson said the FBI alerted members of the governor’s security team during their investigation into the threats, but “per security protocols for highly-classified information,” the governor and his staff were not alerted. Northam and his family were never in imminent danger, spokesperson, Alena Yarmosky said. “Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” in April — just like Michigan. In fact, the president regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him. The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. “There’s a mixed message coming out of Washington, which we’ve been seeing since the beginning of this pandemic,” Northam said at the press conference. The president’s words “have meaning to people. When language is used such as to ‘liberate’ Virginia, people, they find meaning in those words and thus these things happen, and that’s regrettable.” Six men were charged in federal court in relation to the plot to kidnap Whitmer, and seven others face domestic terrorism charges for wanting to storm the Michigan Capitol and start a “civil war.”
The death of a frontline Motor Vehicle Administration employee would not have happened if the state had taken proper precautions against COVID-19, a union representing state workers said Tuesday. The unidentified customer service agent worked at the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Largo. He died Friday after being off work two weeks following a COVID-19 diagnosis, according to Walter Powell, an AFSCME Council 3 shop steward and coworker. Powell said the employee was the fifth person from the Largo MVA to test positive for coronavirus and the first to die. He said the death has sent shockwaves through the workplace. “They are terrified,” he said of his coworkers. “They are terrified to go back to work and to put themselves and their families in jeopardy of catching this disease, because there are a lot of people who have pre-existing conditions.” In a statement, the MVA said the employee with the most recent case confirmed by a test was last in the Largo office on Oct. 3. “We have been in contact with that team member’s family, and grief counselors are being arranged for staff at the Largo branch office as we get through this tragedy together as an MDOT MVA family,” the statement said. “We will continue to support our employees with any resources we have available while they remain in quarantine. Contact tracing has been underway to determine others these individuals may have been in contact with, and they have been instructed to self-quarantine due to potential exposure.” Powell said the agency has provided workers with gloves, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. But he said the employee who died worked just two stations away from another employee who tested positive. “There’s plexiglass that protects us from the customer but there’s nothing that protects the employee from the employee,” he said. In its statement, MVA said customers and staff are required to wear face coverings and participate in a brief health screening and temperature scan in order to enter any agency facility. “As we navigate this pandemic health emergency, MDOT MVA encourages all employees to take care of themselves and their families by closely following the governor’s executive orders and CDC and Maryland Department of Health guidelines, which include social distancing, washing hands frequently and staying home if they are sick,” the statement said. AFSCME Council 3’s director of collective bargaining, Stuart Katzenberg, said “closed” ventilation in workplaces like the Largo MVA is “dangerous” and needs to be improved. “These are Larry Hogan’s employees that are getting sick, and he is not doing enough to protect them,” Katzenberg said. The agency said a “thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the office” was done following the first notification, on Oct. 5, and a second cleaning occurred on Monday. The agency is working with the state Department of Health, the statement said. “My heart goes out to our members who are dealing with this crisis,” said AFSCME MVA local President Mildred Womble in a statement. “This was all preventable if management had taken the safety of their employees seriously. Instead they have put frontline workers in grave danger.” The union wants the state to release an agency-by-agency count of infection and death rates. “The administration won’t test all state employees returning to work and has failed to be transparent about how many of our brothers and sisters are getting sick with COVID-19,” said AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran.“By our count, just what our members report to us, over 900 state employees have contracted COVID while work and at least, now, three have died,” he added.
D.C. and Maryland have both seen increases in coronavirus cases per 100,000 since Sept. 30 and Sept. 26, respectively. In D.C., the 7-day moving average new cases jumped from 5.12 at the end of September to 9.46 as of Monday. In Maryland, the same metric went from 7.63 to 9.61 over roughly the same period. At the county level, Montgomery County’s trend roughly tracks the whole state, although its case rate has mostly stayed lower. Prince George’s County’s average is higher than the state, but has been trending slightly downward since the beginning of the month. The metrics are still significantly better than in the spring, and experts say it is too soon to suggest the rise is an indication of a second surge of cases in the region. But the trend is still worth monitoring, says Dr. David Marcozzi, associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the leader of the University of Maryland Medical System’s COVID-19 response. “We’re starting to see a change in the slope of the line with regard to case positivity,” says Marcozzi. “And the question is, will that result in hospitalizations? We’re watching that closely.” In Virginia, cases have shown a less steady rise since the end of September, although they have been increasing since Oct. 7, including in Northern Virginia. It is hard to know exactly what is behind the upward trends, but experts have a few ideas. One possible factor is a lagging result from travel over Labor Day weekend. “Once you travel to one place and then come back, you may not see that uptick because you may spread it to someone else and then someone else, and then that person gets hospitalized,” Marcozzi said. “You may not see that hospitalization impact for potentially weeks to months later as it moves between individuals.” He noted that there has been an increase in viral spread among younger people and in informal settings like birthday parties, bars or college dorms. He said people engaging in those higher-risk activities “need to know that we’re all in this together, and the better they do with limiting their spread of this virus will benefit us all.” Another factor at play is general fatigue with complying with social distancing measures and mask-wearing, Marcozzi said. He recognizes the significant mental health challenges at play, but ultimately, there is nothing else to do but keep going. “We need to just continue our motivation so that we don’t have that struggle and that breakdown, and therefore the virus spreading between us as a result of that fatigue,” he said. It is too early to tell if the “super-spreader” event in the Rose Garden at the White House when President Donald Trump introduced Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26, which resulted in more than a dozen cases from attendees who for the most part didn’t wear face coverings, could influence a broader regional uptick in cases. D.C. only counts city residents towards its case numbers, meaning that Trump and others who are not officially D.C. residents, don’t count in the city’s numbers. But city health officials believe the White House outbreak could be contributing to recent jump in demand for coronavirus testing, and D.C. Health set up a one-day public testing site in front of the White House last Friday to encourage staff to get tested. The upward trend in cases comes as the region confronts a slew of new factors that could impact the coronavirus response, including the arrival of cold and flu season, colder temperatures that could drive people to socialize indoors where transmission is higher and the partial reopening of public schools. Marcozzi said it is important to scrutinize the case numbers, even if they situation in the region is still, on the whole, good. “We all know that as we move inside, as things get colder and we all get tired of wearing masks and physically distancing, that this virus will spread more,” he said. “And it is something we need to be aware of, because the risks of the fall and winter may actually be worse than the spring.”
The Walter E. Washington Convention Center will host the annual NCAA Paradise Jam basketball tournament in November. Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, the men’s and women’s Division 1 college basketball tournaments, which are usually held in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, will take place at the convention center Nov. 26-28, Events D.C. announced Monday. The city’s sports and entertainment authority said games will be played without fans, and athletes will be housed at the nearby Courtyard/Residence Inn. Curative Inc., a D.C.-based laboratory, will test the athletes, coaches and staff regularly during the tournament, according to Events D.C. The authority secured a permit to host the event from the city despite Phase Two restrictions. The announcement comes as D.C. sees an uptick of coronavirus cases and experts fear trends may continue upward as colder weather approaches. The city’s seven-day moving average has been increasing since Oct. 6, when 106 new daily cases were reported — the highest daily count since June. George Washington University’s women’s basketball and George Mason University men’s basketball will participate, along with a slew of collegiate athletes from across the country. It will be the second time the tournament has taken place on the U.S. mainland; GWU hosted a portion of the games in 2017 following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. “Sports have the power to unify and inspire during challenging times – and the 2020 D.C. Paradise Jam tournament is a prime example of us getting creative and continuing to showcase Washington, D.C., not only as the sports capital but as a hotbed for basketball events,” said Gregory A. O’Dell, Event D.C.’s president and CEO, in a press release.
Montgomery County Public Schools football coaches have asked the county to allow in-person workouts. Twenty-four members of the Montgomery County Public School Football Coaches Association signed a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich and the school board, asking them to allow the schools’ athletic department to provide conditioning and skills-and-drills workouts for student-athletes. “Athletes who participate in football have essentially been left to fend for themselves as it relates to training and skill development,” the letter said. The county’s student-athletes have been sidelined since March, when the coronavirus pandemic required schools to switch to online learning, which continued at the start of this school year. There is still no date for MCPS students to return to their classrooms. “It’s going to take a tremendous amount of planning and logistical building of systems and structures in order to open schools,” Supt. Jack Smith told the school board last week. The coaches cited social, mental and emotional health as benefits to gathering in person for practice, as well as decreasing risk of injury when the athletes are scheduled to resume play in the spring. They said that not all families are able to afford personal trainers, gym memberships and workout equipment, and some student-athletes may be left behind. “Training is becoming ‘pay-to-play.’ Outside groups are practicing, working out, running camps and playing games on MCPS fields,” they said. In addition to allowing in-person training, the association is asking to use the protocols created by the MCPS Athletics COVID-19 Task Force. “We support the COVID-19 Task Force for MCPS Athletics and their efforts as they continue to develop plans that will enable students, coaches and staff to safely return [to] in-person athletic activities when conditions in the county allow. [County Health Office Dr. Travis Gayles and Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security] meet with MCPS on a bi-weekly basis to provide feedback and guidance on their reopening plans,” Barry Hudson, a spokesperson for the county executive, said in statement. “The COVID-19 Task Force for MCPS Athletics will continue planning efforts for the safe return of in-person activities, when health metrics allow and in alignment with MCPS operations and the return of students to in-person learning,” said MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala. “MCPS understands the importance of student participation in athletics and extracurricular activities and is committed to returning to the in-person delivery of these programs. MCPS will continue to monitor information and guidance regarding the administration of interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities and provide updates as appropriate.”
Today is the final day for D.C. voters to register in advance for the November election, and the D.C. Board of Elections will host a drive at the Entertainment and Sports Complex in Congress Heights from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The voter registration drive in the Blue Parking Lot, 1100 Oak St. SE, is in partnership with the Wizards, Mystics, Capitals, Nationals and Washington Football Team to reach unregistered voters and to let residents know that the venue is a super voting center available on Election Day. Super voting centers are large polling places that can accommodate crowds with social distancing rules. D.C. residents can register to vote and meet athletes like Washington Football Team alumni Joshua Morgan and Khary Campbell, and Wizards alumni Harvey Grant and Phil Chenier. The Nationals Racing Presidents and Wizards Dancers will also be there. Other athletes were being confirmed, said BOE spokesperson says Nick Jacobs. “I don’t want to overpromise [autographs and photos] but with reasonable precautions being taken, I hope they would be amenable to it,” he said. To register, people must take proof of residency, like a driver’s license, paycheck, utility bill or lease. Safety protocols will be enforced such as social distancing and mask requirements, and hand sanitizer will be available. Martha’s Table will distribute free groceries regardless of registration status and Dunkin’ Donuts will supply free coffee. If people don’t register today, same-day registration is available for residents who vote early or vote in-person on Election Day, although they will not receive a mail-in ballot. Other super voting centers include Capital One Arena, Nationals Park, the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Dock 5 at Union Market and the University of the District of Columbia.
Thousands of George Mason University students are asking for grading to be changed from letters to pass/fail this semester. More than 2,300 students at the Fairfax university have signed a Change.org petition over the last few days asking for the change with online classes this semester. They say virtual instruction isn’t the same. Some students posted that their grades were submitted incorrectly in online systems, and that it is harder to reach professors, who aren’t holding in-person office hours. Also, the students say the use of Blackboard and/or Zoom for virtual instruction prevents meetings with professors and teaching assistants in person, and that limitations, such as a student’s time zone and internet availability, can make it difficult. Dominic Pino, opinion editor at Fourth Estate, GMU’s student newspaper, said he disagrees and thinks the university should continue letter grades for the fall semester. “No matter what happens, all of these semesters are going to have an asterisk next to them. If not on the transcript, at least in everybody’s mind,” Pino said. He said it was appropriate to go to pass/fail for the spring semester as online classes were thrown at professors overnight, but they have had some time to adjust. “People are always saying we’re in unprecedented times,” Pino said. “It’s true to a certain extent, but also this has been going on for six months now. There is some precedent now, and when it was more unprecedented there was a stronger argument, I think, for pass/fail,” he said. The University of Virginia recently answered a similar petition, saying it will give undergraduate students the choice to opt into a pass/fail grading system. Officials said students who would have earned a “C” or higher will receive full credit.
Virginia on Friday released its plan for distributing a coronavirus vaccine that includes $3 million for public outreach, nearly $2.5 million for refrigerators and thermometers, and more than $71 million for mass vaccination clinics, where hundreds of thousands of Virginians would be immunized against COVID-19. The plan shows the size and scale of a public health campaign designed to protect millions against a historic virus. The plan was submitted to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for review last week and remains “a living document as more information is understood, more vaccines are introduced, and any other considerations develop,” wrote Joseph Hilbert, the Virginia Department of Health’s deputy commissioner for governmental and regulatory affairs. But the plan also underscores many of the factors that health workers will contend with when it comes to distributing any future vaccine. While VDH is preparing for a potential Nov. 1 release — a date requested by the Trump administration after the president suggested a vaccine could be ready as early as this month — there’s “no absolute guarantee” of when any safe and effective immunization will be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Christy Gray, the director of the department’s division of immunization. Federal health officials have called a release before Election Day “very unlikely.” What is clear is that vaccination will be incremental and unprecedented compared to any previous disease outbreaks within the last decade. Virginia developed pandemic influenza planning more than a decade ago during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak — plans that have helped form some of the state’s current coronavirus procedures. Virginia’s plans call for health experts to consider infection control measures at immunization sites, raising the possibility of drive-through clinics or events at large indoor venues that leave room for social distancing. There are also significant outstanding questions about the vaccine itself, including how many doses will initially be available. While the federal government will determine how much of the vaccine is distributed to Virginia, according to the state’s planning document, health officials are planning a phased approach under the assumption that only limited amounts will be available when it is first released. The initial scenario tasks state officials with developing priority groups for the first distribution. Under the state’s plan, those include residents at long-term care facilities — which account for nearly 50% of the state’s total COVID-19 deaths — as well as healthcare workers and “people who play a key role in keeping essential functions of society running and cannot socially distance in the workplace.” Those positions have yet to be determined, but could include first responders, teachers and childcare providers, according to the document. Priority consideration will also be given to other high-risk groups, including Virginians aged 65 or older, people of color and people living in congregate living facilities such as prisons, homeless shelters or college campuses. “In the event that Virginia’s allocation during Phase 1 is insufficient to vaccinate all those included in the initial populations of focus, it is important for the Virginia Unified Command to identify and estimate the subset groups within these initial populations of focus to determine who will receive the first available doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” the plan said. More than 20 different divisions and agencies have a role in the 60-page document, including the Virginia Department of Education and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which are expected to coordinate with local health departments on immunizing students and employees at K-12 schools and college campuses. The plan calls for nearly $121 million in total spending for vaccination efforts, including more than $3.3 million for supplemental supplies such as bandages, syringes and needles. The state anticipates paying nearly $40 million for a pharmacy benefits administrator to manage claims for un- and underinsured patients and distribute payments to pharmacies and other community providers for administering vaccines. The vaccine itself will be supplied to the state free of charge, but the CDC says that administrative costs will likely be shouldered by state and local governments. Providers must vaccinate patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. VDH will distribute money to local health departments to assist with mass vaccination, according to the plan. But it isn’t entirely clear how the state will fund the effort. Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne recently said that roughly $700 million in remaining federal CARES Act money could go toward the state’s immunization campaign. Gray said another complication could be the dosages for any future immunization. Many of the vaccines currently under trial will require two doses, “separated by 21 or 28 days,” according to the plan. “Those vaccines are not interchangeable with each other, so that’s another consideration that wasn’t necessarily the case during any previous disease outbreaks,” she added. In other words, if patients receive an initial dose of a vaccine from a certain pharmaceutical company, their doctor, pharmacist or local health department will need to follow up with them to make sure they receive a second dose of the same vaccine within a certain timeframe. It is an effort that requires massive coordination and also the involvement of doctors across Virginia. The state’s planning document encourages patients to be immunized at their “medical home” whenever possible and describes the early recruitment of doctors as one of the most important early factors in mass vaccination. Earlier this month, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver sent a letter to providers asking them to register with the state if they planned on distributing a COVID-19 vaccine.
After four consecutive days with more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases, Virginia added 811 new cases on Sunday, and seven-day averages fell both statewide and in Northern Virginia. More than 1,000 new cases were reported each day statewide from Wednesday through Saturday, the first time that had happened. In Northern Virginia, 197 new cases were reported Sunday, and the region’s seven-day average fell to 225.1. It was as low as 158.9 as recently as Oct. 2. Statewide, the seven-day average of new cases fell back below 1,000 to 978. However, it had been as low as 747 on Oct. 1. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate for diagnostic tests ticked down to 4.6% on Sunday, the 16th consecutive day it has been below the key level of 5%. The World Health Organization has said that maintaining a rate below 5% for 14 days is a key metric in determining when to ease coronavirus restrictions. The Fairfax health district, the state’s largest, also maintained a pandemic-low rate of 3.7% for the second successive day. The health department reported four new coronavirus-related deaths statewide Sunday, none in Northern Virginia.
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Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.