Christmas Eve Sees Most New Cases in DMV
COVID-19 Cases Reach 622,727 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 27,710 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 762 deaths; there have been 265,440 cases in Maryland with 5,514 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 329,577 cases with 4,840 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
The DMV reported more new COVID-19 cases on Christmas Eve than at any other time during the pandemic. Virginia reported its highest number of new cases ever on Thursday, with 4,782 new cases and 31 deaths. Hospitalizations are also on the rise in the commonwealth, with around 2,500 hospitalizations each day. Maryland had 60 deaths reported Thursday, and the state reported 2,886 new cases on Christmas Eve and more than 2,000 new cases each day since late November. D.C. reported five deaths and 210 cases on Thursday. Both Virginia and Maryland recently began reporting their vaccination rates. So far, 31,491 Virginians and 14,103 Marylanders have received the first dose of their vaccine. Despite the spike in cases and warnings from local and public health officials to stay home for the holidays, more than 1.19 million travelers went through U.S. airport security checkpoints Wednesday, the highest one-day total since the pandemic hit in mid-March, The Associated Press reported. The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he is particularly worried about travel between Christmas and New Year’s. Fauci turned 80 on Christmas Eve and said he and his wife would be celebrating his birthday and the holidays with family on Zoom. “We have a big problem,” Fauci said. “Look at the numbers — the numbers are really quite dramatic.” More than 327,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19, with more than 3,000 deaths per day repeatedly recorded over the past two weeks.
Reading assessments of Prince William County Public School’s youngest students show a dramatic increase in the number of students struggling to read at grade level from last year. According to the state’s Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS), the number of PWCS elementary students not meeting the reading benchmark has risen by more than 16% from last fall. In all but three of the 59 county elementary schools for which data was available, the percentage of students identified for PALS intervention is up from last year. Part of the state’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative (EIRI), the screening is provided to school districts at no charge through a contract with the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education Development. The biannual screening is designed to identify K-3 students in need of reading intervention services before grade promotion and will be given again during the spring semester. Kindergarteners returned to in-person learning Nov. 10 and first graders returned at the start of December. The district is so far sticking with its phased return of older students in the new year. Diana Gulotta, the school district’s director of communications services, said schools will create a plan of interventions for students who don’t meet the benchmark. “Schools receive additional funding from the EIRI grant to implement interventions which could include small group tutoring by a reading teacher or paraprofessional under the supervision of a reading teacher,” she said in an email. “It may also include using a computer-based reading program that adapts to the student’s skill level and growth pattern.” The data was made available to school board members in advance of their joint meeting with the Prince William Board of County Supervisors on Dec. 8, but the results were not discussed during the meeting. At that joint meeting, three Republican Board of County Supervisors members walked out in protest over implicit bias training presented by district staff at the request of Woodbridge School Board Member Loree Williams. School Board Chair Babur Lateef, who has long pushed for a faster return to in-person learning despite rising cases of COVID-19, called the results “extremely concerning.” Other school board members either couldn’t be reached for comment or said they hadn’t been able to fully review the data yet. “There is no doubt that remote learning is not adequate to teach reading to the students. These results validate what the experts have always believed and that is pre-K through 3 will not do well with remote learning,” Lateef said. “Frankly, we should’ve had pre-k through 3 in much sooner. The data in the PALS testing is crystal clear. Remote learning is not working for our students well enough.” There were three elementary schools in the report for which full data was not available, but West Gate Elementary School outside Manassas showed a 53.3% increase in the number of students identified for intervention, the largest in the county. Eight others showed increases of more than 30%: Marumsco Hills, Featherstone, Vaughan, Kilby, Victory, Sinclair, Enterprise and Belmont. Tyler Elementary School in Gainesville posted the biggest decline in struggling students, with 7.7% fewer students being identified for intervention. Minnieville and Marshall Elementary Schools also had declines. In 15 elementary schools, half or more of the students were identified for intervention. Academic indicators from other Northern Virginia school districts have shown significant struggles during largely remote learning this fall as well. A report from Fairfax County Public Schools at the end of November showed a significant drop in grades this year. Meanwhile, PALS data for Arlington County Public Schools showed drops in reading proficiency for every elementary school grade, and particularly among Black and Hispanic students as well as English-language learners. Full data by race and ethnicity is not yet available for Prince William schools, the second-largest school district in the commonwealth and 35th largest in the country. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school reopening dashboard, which largely relies on COVID case numbers over the last 14 days, Prince William County remains in the highest-risk category. Gov. Ralph Northam has imposed some new restrictions during the winter surge in cases, but many activities like indoor dining are still allowed, just at slightly diminished capacity. As of Wednesday, the county’s seven-day test positivity rate was 16.4%, well above the target numbers set out by the CDC and Virginia Department of Health. According to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, a record 2,586 COVID-19 patients are currently being treated in hospitals across the state. Lateef said that schools haven’t been a source of spread for COVID. “[The schools] aren’t really the problem, it’s the bars and restaurants that are the problem,” he said.
Judges in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City refused to block indoor-dining bans in the jurisdictions after the Restaurant Association of Maryland and about 100 restaurants filed lawsuits in each jurisdiction’s circuit court. RAM said Maryland’s restaurant and food industry lost $1.4 billion since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishments have had to lay off or furlough about 150,000 workers. On Wednesday, the dining bans in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, which also bans outdoor dining, were allowed to say after the circuit court judges ruled in their favor. Judge John P Davey upheld the indoor dining ban Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks imposed as part of her coronavirus restrictions. Davey said that while he agrees the ban would create hardship toward restaurant owners and its employees, county officials have shown “a legitimate government interest” in its desires to limit the spread of the virus and keep hospitals from running out of patient beds. “While indoor eating at restaurants is but one means of transmitting COVID-19, the county has demonstrated that indoor eating creates an additional risk of spreading the infection because patrons are removing their masks to eat,” Davey said. The county’s indoor dining ban began Dec. 16 and remains in effect through Jan. 16. Outdoor dining is allowed at 50% capacity, and restaurants can still offer curbside service and takeout. Angela Alsobrooks in a press release reaffirmed her support of the ban, saying that closing indoor dining gives her “no pleasure” but will save lives. “This has been an unforeseen and unprecedented time, and I will continue to take all steps possible to support our restaurant community, while preserving the health and well-being of Prince Georgians,” Alsobrooks said. In Baltimore, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill also refused to grant a temporary restraining order against the city ban on indoor and outdoor dining. In his decision, Fletcher-Hill said that while the restaurant industry “bears a disproportionate burden in this public health crisis,” Mayor Brandon Scott’s decision to ban indoor and outdoor dining was done in the interest of public health. In a statement, Scott said he was pleased with the circuit court’s decision, adding that restrictions will be eased once it is justifiable by the data. “As your mayor, my top responsibility is ensuring our residents are healthy and safe,” Scott said. “I call on all of our residents to make a point of supporting your local restaurants this holiday season as we get through this difficult and unprecedented time together.” In Montgomery County, Judge James Bonifant refused to issue a temporary restraining order that would have lifted the county’s eight-day-old ban on indoor restaurant dining. The Montgomery County Council approved County Executive Marc Elrich’s executive order Dec. 15 limiting county restaurant service to outdoor dining, takeout and delivery to counter the surging number of coronavirus cases. After hearing hours of testimony Tuesday from restaurant operators and public health officials, ruled that the county council and county executive did not act arbitrarily imposing the ban. “The county council and county executive are trying to protect the county from the spread of the virus,” Bonifant said. But he added that the dozens of restaurants can continue their bid for a permanent injunction against the indoor dining ban at a trial, with a date to be set on Monday. Elrich said he was pleased with the ruling in a press release. “The steps we have taken throughout the pandemic were done out of a grave concern for public health and today’s ruling supported that notion,” he said.
Virginia reported a record high number of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with 4,652 new cases. COVID hospitalizations continue to rise in the commonwealth and across the DMV with more people expected to travel and spread the virus during the holiday season. There are 319,133 known cases in Virginia in all. Fifty-five more deaths were reported from the virus on Wednesday, bringing the total to 4,760. Virginia’s other COVID-19 metrics are also increasingly bleak: hospitalizations are at an all-time high. They have been trending up since October, topped the previous May peak at the beginning of December and have only continued to climb since then with 2,586 patients currently hospitalized with the virus. D.C. also reported large number of new cases Wednesday, with 326 new cases. The city has 27,226 total known cases. Seven more people died, bring the total to 751. D.C.’s rolling seven-day average case rate is down a bit from the past several days, but still elevated past its May peak at 31.75 cases per 100,000 people. The percentage of all hospitalizations that are COVID-19 patients in D.C. is still rising and now stands at 11.8%. The city considers that percentage too large for its current Phase Two of reopening. In a TV interview yesterday, Mayor Muriel Bowser urged residents to “dial back” their typical holiday activity, adding, “We’ve been responding to this and surviving this for 10 months, and we all need to get to the other side of it so that we can be vaccinated and get back to normal.” And Maryland reported 2,465 new cases and 49 new deaths on Wednesday. There are 257,862 total known cases, and 5,568 total deaths. Currently 1,776 people are hospitalized in Maryland due to the coronavirus. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has been trending up since September, peaking on Dec. 15. After a brief dip, hospitalizations are again rising.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the commonwealth to provide unemployment benefits to roughly 70,000 residents whose applications have been significantly delayed. Northam also relieved businesses that had to lay off employees due to the pandemic of $200 million in payroll taxes. The taxes would have helped replenish Virginia’s main unemployment fund, so officials are now counting on the federal government to do so. Northam directed the Virginia Employment Commission to “immediately begin distributing benefit[s] to [unemployment] applicants whose claims have been delayed in the determination process,” according to a press release Tuesday While the commission will still adjudicate the backlogged claims, applicants who are ultimately deemed ineligible would have to return the payments. Megan Healy, Northam’s top workforce advisor, told the Washington Post that Virginia was “the third-fastest state for getting benefits out to people who are eligible, but one of the slowest to getting them to those [initially deemed] ineligible.” Virginia’s unemployment fund has been emptied of the $1.5 billion it held before the pandemic, due to the roughly 1.4 million people who have filed jobless claims this year. As a result, the commonwealth is borrowing from the federal government to bankroll the benefits. It is far from the only jurisdiction struggling to process a large number of unemployment applications because of COVID-19. In D.C., for example, thousands of residents have been forced to wait as the city’s Department of Employment Services reviews their claims. Meanwhile, more national coronavirus relief rests in the balance between the White House and Congress. Northam’s payroll-tax break for hard-hit businesses means the Virginia Employment Commission can’t penalize them for layoffs that took place between April and June 2020. Generally, employers must pay taxes for each laid-off worker in order to keep the state’s unemployment fund afloat.
With coronavirus vaccines now being distributed to frontline healthcare workers, first responders and long-term care staff and residents, Maryland and Virginia have published online dashboards tracking information on the effort, including demographics. Data shows that most of the people who have received the coronavirus vaccine so far in Maryland and Virginia are white and female. In Maryland, the state department of health data shows that 10,497 people have been vaccinated with a first dose as of Tuesday. A little less than 70% of those initially vaccinated are white. About 11% of those vaccinated are Black and less than 4% are Hispanic or Latino. In Virginia, 19,943 people have been vaccinated. Women have received 11,578 of the vaccinations and 5,742 men (in about 2,600 cases, the recipient’s gender identity was not reported). The new Virginia dashboard includes some race and ethnicity information for people getting the vaccine, but in 18,412 cases that information was not available. For the handful of people whose race and ethnicity were reported, 937 were white compared to 392 Latinos, 71 Blacks and 65 Asian or Pacific Islanders. Providers in Virginia are not required to give information about race, ethnicity or sex, according to a note on the dashboard. Early in the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Health was criticized by activists for providing incomplete demographic information about COVID-19 cases among Latino residents and other groups. Communities of color in the state and the DMV have been hit hardest by COVID-19. Both states are also releasing information about where the vaccines have been distributed on a regional level. Virginia has county-by-county information. In Fairfax County, 849 people have been vaccinated. Maryland has grouped counties together into regional clusters. In the National Capital Region, which includes Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Charles County and Frederick County, 1,509 people have received a vaccine dose. The data reflects reporting from hospitals that are administering the vaccine to frontline healthcare workers. The data will eventually expand as the supply of vaccines increases to healthcare facilities across the state, including nursing homes and health clinics. Dr. Jinlene Chan, interim deputy secretary for public health services at the Maryland Department of Health, said the data will help inform the department’s outreach and communications with the general public and healthcare providers. “It is critical to our broader strategic planning and helps us respond appropriately as information continues to develop rapidly,” Chan said in a press release Wednesday. Healthcare workers and first responders are getting the vaccine in phase 1A of the state’s distribution plan. Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday that the state’s elderly at nursing homes and assisted living facilities would now receive the vaccine as well. “Though we know this is a difficult time of year for people to be apart from their loved ones, today marks an incredible turning point in our fight against COVID-19. It is another moment of hope in this long battle,” Hogan said in a press release.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is publishing information about crowding on buses in real time on its website bus tracker tool and on third-party apps like Google Maps. “Metro is doing our part to help Metro customers feel safe when traveling, and we’re proud to release this new tool to help customers make more informed travel decisions,” said Metro General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld in a press release. “Social distancing is a top concern as we all navigate this public health crisis, and we hope customers find this information valuable when deciding when to ride.” Riders tracking their bus will now see icons showing whether a bus has “many seats available” (less than 25% occupied), “few seats available” (25%-49% occupied) or is “full” (50% or more occupied). Those labels are based on public health guidance for effective social distancing, according to the press release. Metrobuses are equipped with infrared sensors at front and rear doors, enabling automated counting of the number of people in the bus at any given time. That information will now be accessible to customers who want to take the bus but are concerned about keeping their distance from other riders. Metrorail cars don’t have the same sensor technology, but Metro is publishing information about typical passenger levels at any particular day, time and rail line based on trends from several prior weeks of data. The rail car information will be represented in tracking apps as “many seats available” (less than 20% occupied), “few seats available” (20%-32% occupied) or “full” (33% or more occupied). Ridership on Metrobus and Metrorail has dropped during the pandemic. Recent data from the transit agency shows the rail system ridership is down nearly 90% on weekdays. Bus ridership is down less, about 60% on weekdays. Access to real-time transit crowding information is new to D.C. region riders, but other cities have had systems in place for much of the pandemic. Data on crowding on buses in Boston and New York has been available to riders since April.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will likely be able to avoid some of the most drastic service cuts in its proposed budget, which begins in July, now that the House of Representatives and Senate approved a $900 billion coronavirus relief package Monday and sent it to President Donald Trump for his signature. The bill include $14 billion for public transit, considerably less than the $32 billion industry groups say they need to keep transit systems afloat. That money gets doled out based on a set of formulas. Some of that funding goes toward local transit agencies like Alexandria’s DASH, Prince George’s County’s The Bus, Montgomery County’s Ride-On and others, so it is unclear how much WMATA will receive. Virginia Del. Mark Warner tweeted that D.C., Maryland and Virginia should see more than $800 million as part of the relief package. Through the CARES Act, the region got $1 billion and Metro ended up with $877 million. Metro’s proposed cuts that are scheduled to start in July are valued at about $343 million, according to Metro budget documents. It includes eliminating weekend train service, running trains every 30 minutes on all lines on weekdays, implementing turnbacks on the Red, Yellow and Silver lines, closing Metrorail at 9 p.m., closing 19 stations and eliminating 2,400 jobs. In all, it cuts rail service to 20% of pre-pandemic levels and bus service to 45% of pre-pandemic levels. Some board members said that level of service will force many to find travel alternatives or continue to work from home. But now some of that could be off the table. It is unclear what would be changed if additional funds arrive. Metro has said federal relief is the only option for help it has left, and WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has repeatedly said it would be much easier to add back service if it came. The board hasn’t addressed which service items would be restored first. Metro board chair Paul Smedberg said the board has not discussed line by line priorities. He said he is unsure if the board will hold another meeting before the end of the year if funds do come through. Last week, the board voted to hold public hearings in January and February. That information could help board members make the most informed decisions when the budget is formally voted on in March. WMATA board members have expressed distaste for cutting weekend service, closing stations and the turnbacks specifically. If Metro is able to avoid the proposed cuts and sticks to its current service levels, it would represent about 50% of pre-pandemic rail service and 75% of pre-pandemic bus service. WMATA has been sustaining itself with about $800 million that it got from the CARES Act in May, but that money runs out early next year. The American Public Transit Association says the industry needs $32 billion to survive. Many Democrats say this bill is merely a “bridge” to a wider funding package in the new year.
On Wednesday morning, judges in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are scheduled to hear lawsuits in which dozens of restaurants are fighting orders by the county executives banning indoor dining to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The lawsuits, brought by the Restaurant Association of Maryland and restaurants in both counties, argue that restaurants and bars are “not a significant source of COVID contamination.” But guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maryland Department of Health suggests otherwise. Last week, the Montgomery County Council passed an executive order, proposed by County Executive Marc Elrich, that prohibits indoor dining in the county as of last Tuesday. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks issued a similar order effective Wednesday. The orders prompted the lawsuits, which seek injunctions and temporary restraining orders against the bans. A hearing is scheduled at 9 a.m. in Prince George’s County and at 9:30 a.m. in Montgomery County before Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant. The restaurant association is also seeking an injunction and temporary restraining order in Baltimore City, which also closed down outdoor dining. About 100 restaurants have signed on as plaintiffs from the three jurisdictions. Of those, 28 are listed in Montgomery County’s lawsuit and 21 in the Prince George’s County lawsuit. The Montgomery County complaint says closing restaurants will cause “immeasurable, immediate and irreparable injury” to county residents for a number of reasons. Those include the likelihood that restaurant workers will be laid off just before the period between Christmas and New Year’s, which is normally a busy time for the industry; more restaurant owners will likely be forced to close permanently due to not having business during the holiday season; food suppliers might be forced to lay off employees or go out of business; the service industry, such as equipment manufacturers, could be hurt by the closure of restaurants; restaurants won’t be able to pay rent, which will affect landlords and hurt landlords’ property management companies; and restaurant investors will suffer financially. The plaintiffs also claim that closing restaurants could lead to an increase in the spread of COVID-19, because people will turn to their homes or offices to have social gatherings. The complaint says 70% of COVID-19 transmissions happen in the home or another non-commercial location and 1.5% of transmissions occur at restaurants and bars. The complaint doesn’t list the source of those numbers. The lawsuit argues that the county’s “draconian measures” are “akin to sentencing for criminal procedures: restriction of freedom and taking of property. When such basic rights are taken from the persons who are alleged to have committed a crime, these persons are afforded procedural and substantive due process, by which they have reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard,” the complaint states. “Meaningful notice and an opportunity for all affected to be heard did not occur. The order was adopted and was immediately implemented.” The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction and “injunctive relief.” According to the complaint, the plaintiffs assert that there is “no support for the proposition that destroying the foodservice industry in Montgomery County will have any material impact on the rate of transmission of COVID-19.” However, guidance for bars and restaurants on the CDC’s website states that, as with other public places, limiting in-person interaction is key to reducing the spread of the virus, in addition to wearing masks. The CDC includes four levels of risk for transmission when it comes to restaurants. The two highest risk levels include indoor dining. Elrich and County Council President Tom Hucker both defended the county’s order last week. Hucker said contact tracing data indicate a link between indoor dining and exposure to the virus. According to the Maryland Department of Health, there were 37,458 cases between July 10-Nov. 14 in which people who got the virus reported having gone to a “high-risk location.” The health department asks people during contact tracing whether they worked at or visited any locations where they had prolonged exposure to others in the two weeks before feeling sick. High-risk locations include stores, restaurants, weddings and other social gatherings. Of those who answered the question about high-risk locations during this period, 21,314 said that they had worked outside of their home, 13,714 had gone shopping indoors, 8,656 dined indoors and 6,149 dined outdoors. During that same period, there were 25,819 people who reported not having gone to a high-risk location in the 14 days before getting sick and 12,845 who didn’t answer the question.
This week, Maryland will receive almost triple the doses of COVID-19 vaccine that it got last week. Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday that more than 140,000 doses of vaccines have been allotted to the state by the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed. Most of this week’s doses will come from Moderna, which was granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration last Friday. Maryland is being shipped 104,300 doses of Moderna’s vaccine and 36,075 of Pfizer’s vaccine. By week’s end, the state will have received 191,075 vaccine doses. Both vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart. The state is currently in Phase 1A of its vaccination plan, which means doses will only go to frontline staff at hospitals, as well as staff and residents at long-term care facilities. The next phase in the vaccination plan would include people who are at risk of suffering a severe case of COVID-19. According to Hogan’s office, 90% of frontline hospital workers will have vaccine available to them by the end of the week, and all should be able to get a vaccine with next week’s vaccine allotment. Maryland is working with CVS and Walgreens to get long-term care center employees and residents vaccinated and plans to have vaccination clinics begin later this week. The first shipments of Moderna’s vaccine will also go to local health departments in the state to confirm the function of the state logistics chain and so vaccination teams can get their vaccinations. D.C. announced Monday that it will receive 4,875 doses of Pfizer’s vaccines and 12,600 doses of Moderna’s vaccines from Operation Warp Speed. Plus, the city will get an additional 8,775 doses from Virginia and 8,000 from Maryland. D.C. received 6,825 doses last week. Virginia officials expect to receive 370,650 doses of vaccines for the month of December.
Arlington County residents struggling to pay their utility bills because of lost wages due to the pandemic have until Jan. 15 to apply for assistance under the county’s new Utility Relief program. The program is funded with a $383,000 grant from the state. The county estimates more than 3,000 utility accounts are currently in arrears and could qualify. It will send out letters and emails to customers with qualifying outstanding balances that are 30 days or more past due. Those who think they may be eligible, but have not received notice by Jan. 1, can call the Utility Relief Hotline at 703-228-5080 or fill out an online application. The program is for utility customers whose water and sewer bills have an outstanding balance accrued since March 1. Funds will go first to those customers with outstanding balances of 60 days or more. Any remaining money will go to customers with outstanding balances at least 30 days late. As of Nov. 11, water and sewer bills at least 60 days delinquent in the county totaled $443,000. Arlington County has until Jan. 29 to spend the grant money or return the balance to the state.
During a press conference Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser urged residents to stay home during the upcoming holidays so hospital workers don’t get overwhelmed after. Following a spike in coronavirus cases, Bowser ordered new restrictions that go into effect at 10 p.m. Wednesday as part of a “holiday pause,” including a ban on indoor dining. D.C. has been “dialing back” activities to combat the spread of the virus, Bowser said. “So what we are very focused on now, like jurisdictions all around us and all around the country, on how to dial back even more activity,” she said. “And … we know that this is a limited time. And we’re asking everybody to make this sacrifice so that our hospital workers won’t be overwhelmed following these holidays.” Bowser noted that indoor dining has been “pretty consistently cited” as a cause of viral spread. D.C.’s hospitals have seen an increase of COVID-19 patients for several days, she said. “So, as we think about all of our activities, we’re really aiming to make sure that our hospitals can handle people who need COVID care, but also all of the other care that people need in general,” Bowser said. “We’re asking everybody to protect themselves and their families by staying home, not traveling, limiting your activities with other households for the Christmas holiday and New Year’s Eve, and everything in between,” the mayor said. She added that getting tested doesn’t replace the precautions people should be taking: Wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands. “Practice good hand hygiene and limit your activities,” Bowser said. “We’re asking people not to travel and gather in groups, and have different members of households sitting close together. And please pay close attention to not letting your guard down in familiar places, around familiar people. That is your own home or friend’s home or relative’s home — still wear a mask.” Bowser also clarified another component of the pause Monday: dining in outdoor spaces. During the “holiday pause,” restaurants can continue outdoor dining, but structures such as tents or canopies are only allowed to have two flaps or walls. In addition, “streateries” and parklets can be used when temperatures are below freezing, except during a snow emergency. Restaurants can also offer carryout and delivery. Bowser’s order closes museums and libraries, requires reservations to swim in a city pool, halts the D.C. Circulator bus route on the National Mall and recommends nonessential businesses to telework. During the press conference, officials also talked about how the city’s COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed. The shipments include both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines. This week, D.C. will receive 8,775 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Virginia, 8,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from Maryland and 4,875 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 12,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine from Operation Warp Speed. Dr. Ankoor Shah, D.C. Health’s interim senior deputy director, said the additional doses will allow the city to vaccinate more high-risk healthcare workers, including EMS workers and those at nursing facilities. “Through the pharmacies and their federally qualified health center partnerships, we’re able to vaccinate intermediate care facility staff, home health aides, urgent care workers and start the vaccinations for those pharmacists and federally qualified health center staff,” Shah said. He added that, later this week, an online registration tool will be available “that will aim to connect those individual healthcare workers to these access points to help schedule and connect to vaccination at the end of this week, and coming next week.” Shah said D.C. has vaccinated about 4,500 people so far.
While the COVID-19 pandemic hit Virginia hard financially in 2020, a new report from Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy shed light on just how bad it is. The pandemic broke a streak of 11 consecutive quarters of economic growth in the commonwealth, and the 27% contraction in the second quarter ensures a year of negative growth, Old Dominion’s sixth annual “State of the Commonwealth” report said. “While there continue to be signs of recovery, we cannot gloss over the simple fact that we are witnessing an economic, social and public health shock the likes of which has not been seen in the United States since the Great Depression,” the report said. Because of the pandemic, one in nine Virginians was furloughed or laid off between February and April, the report said. While jobs bounced back for a while, they are slowing again. As is the case nationwide, the impact fell hardest on Black and Latino people, with unemployment and COVID-19 cases and deaths all far above the statewide average. Center director Robert McNab said Virginia is still ahead of many other states in terms of hospitalizations and death from the virus, and with vaccines on the way, he characterized Virginia’s condition by saying, “We’re nearing the crest of the hill, but there is still an uphill climb.” Although Virginia’s federal connections and contracts make for “a floor on economic activity,” and that revenues should continue to grow in 2021, there is still a lot of work to do. “One of the problems we’re seeing is that we’re evolving into two Virginias,” McNab said. “We have Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, which account for more than 70% of the population of the commonwealth and 70% of economic activity in the commonwealth. And, increasingly, rural areas are feeling more and more left behind — that’s reflected in society and in politics. Is that sustainable? Are we sharing a common destiny anymore? We’re going to have to tackle those tough questions in the coming years.” While the pandemic has hit Virginia hard, another crisis has flown almost under the radar, he said: the opioid epidemic, which McNab said “has continued unabated, and shows no sign of slowing.” McNab said a few things can be done to help. For one, the gap in broadband access across Virginia would spread economic activity and opportunity around. The pandemic has shown that a lot more people can work from home than originally thought — if they have the internet connection to do it. “Less urban areas of the commonwealth can use their lower living costs as a competitive advantage. But if they don’t have reliable broadband, if they don’t have reliable infrastructure, then they can’t market themselves; they don’t have the ability to say, ‘Look, you could live here, live cheaply; you don’t have to pay mid- to high six digits in terms of housing in Northern Virginia. … If you don’t have broadband, if you don’t have the quality of services, you can’t do that.” Education is another key. McNab said that the effects of the pandemic, and the distance learning that resulted, have taken a toll on public schools, and that 2020 should be considered a wash: “2020 shouldn’t be used as a basis for education funding; we should use 2019 until the shocks from the pandemic essentially fade out in the coming years.” He also said that simplifying the tax code for the benefit of businesses trying to operate across Virginia would be a big help; so would legalizing and regulating the growth and sale of marijuana, which would provide more legitimate economic activity as well as fixing a documented disparity in the criminal justice system. Of course, a lot depends on vaccines and getting people to take them in a time of unprecedented, unfounded skepticism. “We could end up in the situation that we don’t end up with sufficient population taking the vaccine … and we don’t hit the acquired immunity that the epidemiologists say is necessary for us to essentially mitigate the spread of the virus,” McNab said. “So how do we combat that? Public education — we need to have public officials, corporate leaders, teachers, etc., being willing to step forward and take the vaccine.” He said now is the time to have difficult conversations about food security, the state’s ability to handle a flood of unemployment insurance claims and other needs, with an eye toward the long term. “We know that, at some point in the future, there will be another contraction in economic activity; there will be another surge of unemployment,” he said. “It may be two, five, 10 years down the road. But if we treat this as a one-off … then we’ll be facing the same difficulties in the next turn.” That said, if Virginia learns its lessons well, the future could be bright, McNab said: “I think vaccine resistance and learning the lessons from this crisis … are part of the preparation for an economic expansion that could be the equivalent of what happened after the 1918 pandemic in the United States. In other words, you find a Roaring ’20s as people came out of that pandemic. You had this surge of economic growth due to improved expectations and investment.
Santa Claus will be coming to town this year, Dr. Anthony Fauci says.
“I took care of that for you,” he says. “…I took a trip up there to the North Pole; I went there and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself. I measured his level of immunity, and he is good to go.” #CNNSesameStreet pic.twitter.com/CNJ520XTew
— CNN (@CNN) December 19, 2020
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highly-trusted face of the nation’s fight against COVID-19, delivered an early Christmas present to Santa Claus – and kids around the country. Appearing on ABCs of COVID-19: A CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall on Saturday morning, Fauci answered a question that has been worrying children: “Will it be safe for Santa Claus to deliver presents this Christmas?’ In the program coproduced by CNN and Sesame Street, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he had taken care of it himself. “I took a trip up there to the North Pole; I went there and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself. I measured his level of immunity, and he is good to go,” Fauci said, in response to Elmo and several young children. During the program, the ensemble expressed concern the jolly old elf might not be able to visit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Virginia topped 300,000 COVID-19 case on Saturday, only 35 days after passing 200,000, and a new model from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute predicts the commonwealth will see tens of thousands of new cases this winter before vaccinations begin to take effect. The recent surge in cases statewide translates into increased hospitalizations and deaths. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association reported 2,405 patients were being treated in commonwealth hospitals for COVID-19 on Sunday after reporting a record 2,429 patients on Saturday. That was up about 300 from the previous Saturday and nearly 600 from two weeks ago. The Virginia Department of Health reported 90 new deaths related to the virus in the past two days and 234 in the past week, one of the highest weekly numbers since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the new model the Biocomplexity Institute released Friday predicts the post-Thanksgiving surge could lead to devastating impacts in January and February, with new weekly cases peaking somewhere between 68,000-98,000 in late January or early February. That would be three to four times the current caseload. “Cold weather, time indoors and pandemic fatigue, spurred by holiday travel and gatherings, increase the risk of transmission,” the report stated. “Meanwhile, the impact of new vaccines, while promising, will not be felt for several months. These risks have now been realized. Early data indicates that the post-Thanksgiving surge is large. If compounded with surges accompanying Christmas, Hanukkah and other winter holidays, it could be a long, cold winter.” The report noted that mitigation strategies, such as avoiding large gatherings and wearing masks, will have more impact on case numbers than the vaccine during the winter. The initial round of vaccinations is only for healthcare workers and long-term care residents. “The vaccine will have limited impact until late spring or summer,” the report said. “In the meantime, cases, hospitalizations and deaths will continue to rise. We will need to continue to take steps to flatten the curve and see us through to spring. The good news is the effect of behavioral and community mitigation strategies, which will have a much larger impact on transmission for the foreseeable future, are enhanced as the vaccine rolls out.” In total, the model predicts 402,000 new cases in 2021, with most occurring in the early months of the year. If that number is accurate, it means more than 700,000 Virginians will have contracted the virus, representing just less than 10% of the commonwealth’s population. The U.Va. model was prepared based on data through Dec. 14, and caseloads fell slightly last week from their post-Thanksgiving highs, according to the VDH. The health department reported 3,876 new cases on Sunday, following 3,584 on Saturday and 3,295 on Friday. Sunday’s report brought the total number of cases since the pandemic began to 306,848. It took the commonwealth nearly five months, until Aug. 9, to reach its first 100,000 cases, a little over three months, until Nov. 14, to record the next 100,000 and just 35 days to report the last 100,000. Virginia’s seven-day average of new cases stands at 3,563, below the peak of 3,920.3 reached Dec. 12. The average has fallen at least slightly every day since then until Sunday, although it is still almost three times the spring peak. In Northern Virginia, numbers are following a similar trend. The health department reported 1,203 new cases Sunday, following 768 on Saturday and 797 on Friday. The region’s seven-day average is at 883, also down from its record high of 1,124.4 set Dec. 12. All other regions of the commonwealth are slightly below their record highs. VDH reported 45 new deaths statewide related to the virus both Friday and Saturday. Of the new deaths, six were in Northern Virginia (three each day): four total in Fairfax County and one each in Arlington County and Alexandria.
Men who go to hospital due to COVID-19 have a 30% higher chance of dying than women who are also hospitalized. That is one of the key findings from a new study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine that looked at nearly 67,000 patients in more than 600 hospitals across the country. The UMD researchers reviewed patients who entered the hospital between April and June of 2020. The goal was to look at which preexisting conditions among hospitalized patients were the best predictors of death. While patients with diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity presented some risk, the largest predictor of death among all ages and preexisting conditions was being male. The study also found that death rates decreased each month hospitals became more familiar with treating patients with COVID-19. Other results of the study showed the risk of death increased with each decade of age; White men were more likely to die than Black men; younger adults (ages 20-39) with preexisting conditions had a higher chance of dying relative to their age than older adults; patients over 80 years old had the highest death rates; and children had the lowest death rates. “Predicting which hospitalized COVID-19 patients have the highest risk of dying has taken on urgent importance as cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. continue to surge to record high numbers during the month of December,” said the study’s corresponding author Dr. Anthony D. Harris, a professor of epidemiology and public health at UMD’s School of Medicine. “Knowledge is power in many ways, so I think understanding which hospitalized COVID-19 patients are at highest risk of mortality can help guide difficult treatment decisions.”
The Christmas tree industry won’t know how well live trees sold this year until the end of the holiday season when the counting is done, but there are signs that it could be a big year for live tree sales. The National Christmas Tree Association reports its members have seen a significant increase in the number of tree shoppers who came out earlier than usual to buy a tree. It attributes the likely increased interest in Christmas trees this year to the pandemic. And for two reasons: families are looking to add some cheer to the homes they are holed up in and going out to pick a tree is a pretty safe pandemic family outing. “With cabin fever and people being in the house a lot, people have been going to agri-tourism sites the whole summer (such as pumpkin patches and orchards). Going out to pick out a real Christmas tree at a choose-and-cut, or frankly any retail location because all real trees are sold outdoors, is a chance to get out,” Doug Hundley, at the National Christmas Tree Association, said. The industry doesn’t report on live tree prices until after the season tally is done, but prices are up an average of 7% from last year, according to estimates from Bloomberg News. The average live tree will cost about $81, Bloomberg reports. Live trees take more work than artificial trees, but more time at home means that’s less of a concern for buyers. “We think since people are staying at home, they have the opportunity to take care of a real tree this year and seem to know that. There has been a lot of talk about people going back to real trees this year,” Hundley said. Bloomberg estimates Americans will spend more than $2 billion in live Christmas trees this year. It takes an average of six years in the field for a six-foot Christmas tree to grow. A fresh tree handled well by the retailer and properly cared for at home can last four to five weeks. Ninety-eight percent of fresh Christmas trees are grown as sustainable crops on tree farms. The Christmas Tree Association has tips for choosing and caring for live trees on its website.
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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.