Winter Storm Cancels Testing, Vaccinations
COVID-19 Cases Reach 891,609 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 36,662 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 909 deaths; there have been 352,726 cases in Maryland with 6,931 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 502,221 cases with 6,449 deaths Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Municipalities across the DMV are canceling COVID-19 vaccination appointments due to today’s snow storm that could dump 3-5 inches on the area. Ice accumulation of under a .25 inch ice is possible late Sunday night, too. Ahead of the storm, Anne Arundel County canceled vaccine and testing clinics for Monday. Vaccination clinics on Sunday and vaccination and testing clinics on Tuesday are expected to open on time, and appointments will proceed as scheduled. Arlington County’s two kiosk-based testing sites at Aurora Hills Community Center and Barcroft Park will be closed Sunday and Monday. The county’s drive-through test site and walk-up testing site are closed Monday. The Fairfax County Health Department canceled all vaccination appointments after 12:30 p.m. today. Appointments between 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. are still on. For those whose appointments have been canceled, the county said it will send out a link to reschedule at a later date. Those who have a morning appointment Monday but are concerned about traveling there can reschedule as well. In Loudoun County, the COVID-19 call center will be closed today and Monday. Also, the county’s vaccination clinic scheduled for Monday has been canceled and those with appointment will be contacted to reschedule. A testing clinic also scheduled for Tuesday has been canceled. Montgomery County did not have any first doses scheduled for Monday or Tuesday but canceled the 1,000 second-dose appointments on Monday and has rescheduled them for Tuesday or Wednesday. Prince George’s County said it will alert everyone on social media on Sunday of plans to keep vaccination appointments open or to close sites. Prince George’s County Public Schools posted on Twitter that the vaccination clinic for teachers and staff will proceed as planned on Sunday. Prince William County Public Schools is holding a vaccination clinic for 2,400 staff members this weekend at Unity Reed High School. Spokesperson Diana Gulotta said PWCS and Novant Health UVA, which is running the clinic, are moving forward with appointments Sunday, despite the storm. She said PWCS will have crews on location constantly plowing to allow for safe passage. Gulotta said if people do not feel comfortable traveling to the clinic in the snow, they can reschedule for a later date. She said they have a full waitlist on hand of eligible staff members, whom they can call to come in and take those appointments so no vaccines go to waste. A spokesperson for the Prince William Health District said if its vaccine clinics get canceled for Monday, “those who have appointments will be contacted and will be rescheduled for this coming week since accommodations have been built-in for this very reason.”
The South African variant of the coronavirus was discovered in Maryland. The case announced Saturday involves an adult living in the Baltimore region who has not traveled internationally, “making community transmission likely,” according to a press release. The new strain, called the B.1.351 variant, made its first documented U.S. appearance on Jan. 28, when two cases were detected in South Carolina. The Maryland Department of Health confirmed the case with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said more research is needed to test how effective vaccines are against the new strain, “however, initial evidence suggests that vaccines are still likely to be protective.” Contact tracing is underway. The South African variant, like the U.K. strain of the virus, is believed to be more transmissible than other strains, but has not been shown to cause more severe illness. The U.K. strain was found in Northern Virginia on Monday after being found in Maryland earlier in January. The U.S. has reported at least 434 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and at least two cases of the B.1.351 variant, along with at least one case of the P.1 variant first detected in Brazil, according to the CDC.
Montgomery County’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents is the lowest it has been since early December. As of Saturday, the seven-day average for cases in the county is 32.4 per 100,000 residents — considered a “very high risk” of transmission by the county’s health department. It was up slightly from Friday, when it was 32.0. However, the number is at its lowest since Dec. 3, when the seven-day average was 29.5. The highest the average hit was 49.8 on Jan. 12, which has been followed by a steady decline. On Saturday morning, the Maryland Department of Health reported an increase of 402 cases in Montgomery County, bringing the total number of cases the county has had to 58,710. Two additional confirmed deaths were reported in the county. The county’s death toll now stands at 1,256.
More than 140,000 Northern Virginians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Virginia Department of Health data, but that does not include federal employees and current and retired military members who may have received vaccines through the federal government. The state health department said its online vaccine dashboard does not include doses that have been administered by federal agencies, which includes the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker shows those two departments have administered more than 1.2 million doses of vaccine, although no detail is provided on where they were administered. The additional availability of doses to Northern Virginia residents affiliated with the federal government or military is significant because Virginia has not been able to obtain as many doses as it has requested, and the state has been criticized for a slow rollout of vaccines, compared to other states. Including vaccines administered by the federal government would likely improve Virginia’s numbers. The federal government’s allocation of vaccines is tracked separately from states’ allocations. The Defense Department’s vaccine guidance, issued in December, indicates that uniformed service members, active and selected Reserve components, including members of the National Guard; dependents; retirees; civilian employees; and select contract personnel are eligible for vaccinations through the department. In the DMV, vaccines were initially administered at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, according to the guidance. In an email to constituents Friday evening, Prince William County Board Chair Ann Wheeler said the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center also can administer COVID-19 vaccines to veterans. Individuals in phases 1A or 1B can call the DC VA COVID-19 Vaccine hotline at 202-745-4342 to check on availability, she said. It isn’t clear how many active-duty military personnel and veterans live in Northern Virginia, but when including federal employees the number rises into the hundreds of thousands. U.S. Census data obtained from the American Community Survey indicate at least 186,000 federal employees live in the region, along with 13,000 active-duty military personnel. Northern Virginia has about 1.9 million residents in total over the age of 16 who are eligible to receive the vaccine. The 141,000 who so far have received at least one dose represents about 7.4% of that population, approximately the same as the statewide percentage. At one point, Virginia was last among the 50 states in terms of percentage of the vaccines it had been issued actually being administered. However, according to the Bloomberg tracker, it had moved up to 20th place as of Friday evening. In Northern Virginia, Fairfax County has administered the most doses per 100,000 residents, while the Prince William Health District, which includes Manassas and Manassas Park, has administered the fewest on a per-capita basis. In a news briefing Friday afternoon, Dr. Danny Avula, who is coordinating the state’s vaccine rollout, said that difference is likely due to the presence of large health systems, such as Inova, in localities such as Fairfax. “Larger health systems vaccinated at high rates their staff, who tend to live in that county,” he noted, and then they also began vaccinating providers who use those facilities as well as their patients. The Prince William Health District announced Friday it has been allocated an additional 5,000 vaccines this week and is opening two new vaccine sites at Potomac Middle School on Monday and the Kelly Leadership Center on Tuesday. Vaccinations also are continuing at George Mason University’s Manassas campus. All vaccinations are by appointment only. More than 25,000 Prince William County residents have registered for the vaccines so far. It was not immediately clear what impact this weekend’s forecast winter storm would have on vaccination clinics. Avula said Friday that the federal government’s decision to release additional doses of the vaccine in coming weeks will mean about 18,000 new doses per week for Virginia, on top of the 105,000-110,000 the state was already expecting each week. Despite the increase, he noted, “We need and could handle significantly more vaccine.” Based on health department data through Saturday, more than 500,000 Virginians have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 140,000 of those in Northern Virginia. Numbers of new cases have stabilized over the past two weeks and hospitalizations for the virus have declined about 20% since their peak in mid-January peak. Deaths, however, which are a lagging indicator, remain high, with another 70 reported Saturday statewide, including 10 in Northern Virginia. The state has now had more than 6,400 reported deaths, with about a quarter, 1,642, in Northern Virginia.
Starting at noon Monday, staff of licensed childcare providers and independent schools in D.C. can begin making appointments for the coronavirus vaccine. D.C. Health and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education partnered with One Medical, which will administer the vaccines beginning Tuesday. Eligible staff who will work in-person will receive an email with instructions for making an appointment. About 1,400 spots are available during the first week. In subsequent weeks, approximately 900 slots will be available each week. Teachers and staff at D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools who will be participating in in-person learning started receiving the coronavirus vaccine last Tuesday.
D.C. Public Schools is set to bring 8,000 students back to classrooms on Monday, and is challenging concerns from the Washington Teachers’ Union that the buildings don’t safety metrics. Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis said she is frustrated for parents and staff who don’t trust DCPS after nine months of negotiations to go back to school safely. After a 12-hour hearing on Thursday, Davis said an arbitrator would rule sometime today on whether DCPS has breached its contract with the union. The issue over school safety metrics, Davis said, goes to transparency: During the walk-through of school buildings to ensure safety repairs had been made, parents and teachers were not included in the process, she said. When they were given checklists and went through the buildings themselves, they noted problems such as toilets that would not flush and windows that wouldn’t open. But the DCPS website showed those repairs had been made, Davis said. “Safety does not appear to be a priority. The priority seems to be the pressure to show that we have kids back in school in person,” she said. Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee called the safety questions meritless. “We have spent many months and millions of dollars to prepare. We know our students are ready; we know our buildings are ready, and we know our staff is ready, and efforts to reopen schools on Monday will continue as planned,” he said in a statement. “I think the DCPS team wanted to give the impression that all we’re interested in is shutting down the system,” Davis said. “That is not the case. The case is, we want — and of course, our message has always consistently been that we want — the families to send their kids back, and we want teachers and school workers to go back when it’s safe to do so,” Davis said. She said it would also make sense for teachers and schools staff who just became eligible to receive their first round of COVID-19 vaccinations to get their second dose before returning. “It doesn’t seem like a big ask. Why don’t you just allow them to get the first and second dose, and then let them go in?” Davis said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan launched a public outreach campaign aimed at promoting confidence in the available COVID-19 vaccines, especially in minority communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Hogan announced the “GoVax” campaign at a press conference Friday at Camden Yards along with public figures, from pastors to public health professionals, who are ambassadors to the program. “Over the next several months, we will be taking this campaign to every corner of every community: to TV, radio, billboards, social media, Zoom — whatever it takes to promote the safety and efficacy of these COVID-19 vaccines, and to make sure that Marylanders know that getting vaccinated is the best way to keep you, your family and your community healthy and safe, and to save the lives of thousands of Marylanders,” Hogan said. In addition to the outreach campaign, Hogan announced the launch of the new Maryland Equity Task Force, which will be led by Brigadier Gen. Janeen Birckhead, the head of the Maryland National Guard. Birckhead is tasked with working with the GoVax ambassadors as well as state and local health officials to “ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines throughout the state of Maryland,” Hogan said. At Friday’s launch, Hogan spoke of his desire to see Camden Yards packed once again with Baltimore Orioles fans and said widespread vaccinations are the only way to begin to return to normal. Speakers at the press conference, who are program ambassadors, spoke of the sense of responsibility in getting vaccinated. “I thought to myself: What are my options?” said Bishop Walter Thomas of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. “I can take the vaccine; I can get the virus; I can get sick; I can die; I can spend the rest of my life in my house. Given those options, there was only one worth taking. And that was the vaccine.” He noted the fairs, festivals, block parties and backyard barbecues Baltimore is known for, “all of which have been silenced over these last 12 months,” Thomas said. “But now, through the vaccine, we have an opportunity to do those things that matter so much to us. And we can open our eyes and see this possibility.” Dr. Kathleen Page, associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, emphasized the science underlying the safety and development of the vaccines. “As an infectious disease doctor and a bit of a nerd, I have read the studies on all the vaccines in detail,” Page said. “And this is the good news: This vaccine is safe and it is so effective. It actually has exceeded all our expectations.” Page, who has treated COVID-19 patients, said she has been “heartbroken so many times to see so many people suffer so severely [and] die away from their families.” For Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, COVID-19 hit close to home. “For me, it’s very personal,” Peña-Melnyk said. She lost her father and a cousin to COVID-19, as well as two friends, one of whom, an otherwise “healthy man,” she worked alongside for months over the summer to distribute food. “You can prevent this,” Peña-Melnyk said. “If, when it’s your turn, you trust it and get the vaccine.” Getting more people to take the vaccine when it becomes available is about building “community immunity,” she said. Peña-Melnyk noted that the vaccines are provided at no cost no matter where you get it, and she reassured members of the Latino community “whether you’re documented or undocumented, we’re not going to ask you for any proof of citizenship.”
The Prince William Health District will receive an additional 5,0000 COVID-19 vaccine doses next week in addition to its regular allotment and open two new vaccination sites. “We are surprised and grateful that we got extra doses of the vaccine,” Dr. Alison Ansher, director of the Prince William Health District, said in a press release. “Our goal is to administer these vaccines as quickly as possible, to get as many Prince William area residents vaccinated and off the wait list as we possibly can.” In addition to the vaccine clinic at Beacon Hall on the Manassas Campus of George Mason University, Potomac Middle School will open as a vaccination site on Monday and the Kelly Leadership Building will open on Tuesday. If the health district continues to receive additional doses above their weekly allocation, the sites will continue to be available. The 5,000 additional doses will be used to help address the backlog of those waiting for appointments. All vaccinations remain by appointment only. Residents eligible under Virginia’s Phase 1B including frontline healthcare workers, Virginians ages 65 and older, and residents with high-risk medical conditions between 16-64 can register online or by calling 703-872-7759 between 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.
A bill making its way through Maryland’s House of Delegates would limit the governor’s emergency powers and require approval from the legislature. Del. Dan Cox of Frederick County sponsored “Consent of the Governed Act,” which would remove the governor’s ability to unilaterally declare a state of emergency. The measure would limit a state of emergency to a maximum of 14 days. Any longer, and lawmakers would have to extend the order. Each chamber would have to approve the measure by a two-thirds majority vote. The bill also states that the governor may not close any house of worship or business using emergency orders unless three independent experts deem those facilities out of compliance. It also adds that emergency orders cannot require a “U.S. citizen to remain at home…wear a face covering, receive a vaccine or be forced under penalty of law to make any other health decisions.” The proposal is currently in a house committee, and it isn’t likely to pass in the Democratic-controlled House. Earlier this month, House members called for Cox to be censured following his comments on social media during the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. Cox organized buses from Frederick County down to former-President Trump’s rally on the ellipse on Jan. 6. That same day, Cox, a supporter of Trump, tweeted that “Pence is a traitor.” Maryland’s current state of emergency is in place to prevent further spread of COVID-19. But in a virtual committee hearing on the bill Thursday, Cox likened the order to the Chinese government’s oppression and persecution of Uyghur Muslims. “Here in Maryland, pastors have been fined and churches threatened for mere worship or even giving the Eucharist or other activities while big box stores and fast food places remain open,” Cox told committee members. He also compared Gov. Larry Hogan’s months-long executive orders to a dictatorship. “Think about that,” Cox said. “We’ve been on the edge of, in [what] some would say when locked in their homes without redress, fully under a dictatorship for the past 10 months.” Unsurprisingly, Hogan does not support the bill. Hogan called Cox a “Q-Anon conspiracy theorist” at a press conference earlier this month and said he was embarrassed by fellow Republicans who fought against the certification of the election. “[Cox] called me a communist Chinese spy for China. He called the vice president a traitor. He was down there gathering people at the Capitol,” Hogan said. Cox and members of Reopen Maryland, a group that has been campaigning against pandemic-related closures across the state since March, sued Hogan in May over his stay-at-home orders. A federal judge rejected the lawsuit saying, “slowing the spread of COVID-19 is a government interest.” The group has filed an appeal. Tim Walters, co-organizer of Reopen Maryland, testified at the bill hearing Thursday saying the group wanted to make sure that, “the governor’s authority is bound to oversight and in constitutional partnership with the general assembly. We cannot, as free men and women allow the government, especially any one elected official to challenge individual liberties and suspend constitutionally protected freedoms at all, much less indefinitely.”
Low-income Marylanders facing eviction who can’t afford a lawyer would be guaranteed one if new legislation passes. Currently, residents who can’t afford representation can seek a public defender in criminal or juvenile matters, but don’t have the same rights in civil proceedings, including landlord-tenant cases. Supporters say renters sued for eviction often have a legitimate defense against the complaint but fail to effectively defend themselves in court. Eviction lawsuits are expected to rise in the wake of the pandemic. “These are issues that have been around for quite a long time, but COVID-19 has shined a light on the cracks that already exist in our housing system, and this is definitely one of them,” said Sen. Shelly Hettleman of Baltimore County, the chief sponsor of the “right to counsel” bill in the Senate, during a Thursday hearing. Hettleman’s proposal would establish a new position in the Attorney General’s office responsible for coordinating legal services for low-income tenants facing eviction or retaliation from their landlords. The legislation would also create a task force and an eviction defense fund that draws from the state budget and other sources such as grants. The legislation is similar to a “right to counsel” bill that passed the Baltimore City Council last year, making the city the seventh jurisdiction in the country to guarantee legal representation to defendants in eviction suits. Leaders approved the law after an Abell Foundation report found that roughly 99% of defendants in Baltimore City evictions lacked representation, while 4% of landlords were unrepresented. Advocates say that program, which would be phased in over four years, will prevent hundreds of residents from becoming homeless or entering the foster care system due to an eviction. If a statewide “right to counsel” bill passes this session, Maryland households that earn less than 50% of the state’s median income — or less than $48,000 in 2019 — would be guaranteed representation in eviction lawsuits by Oct. 1, 2025. But the bill would be expensive, according to a fiscal analysis, mainly because of the sheer number of cases filed in Maryland each year. In a state with approximately 805,000 renter households, landlords file more than 655,000 eviction lawsuits annually, according to the attorney general’s office. Most don’t result in court proceedings. Nevertheless, sponsors say implementing the program could cost $28 million. Lobbyists for landlords and members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee raised criticisms of the high price tag during Thursday’s hearing. “I’m very reluctant to pass this bill and saddle the Office of the Attorney General with a funding requirement on an annual basis that you’ve admitted you cannot pay,” said Sen. Christopher West of Baltimore County, after a representative from the attorney general’s office said his department couldn’t shoulder the entire cost of starting the program. Supporters say the program could also be funded by federal COVID-19 relief aid and grants, and that it would save the state more than $90 million in other costs, including spending on homeless services for people who end up on the street after an eviction. With right to counsel in place, Baltimore City and the state could save a combined $6.24 for every dollar they spend on the program, according to the Abell Foundation report. Landlords may also file fewer evictions if they know their tenants have representation, the fiscal analysis notes. Maryland does not have a comprehensive eviction ban during the pandemic, unlike D.C., where all evictions are paused until the health emergency expires. Marylanders who can’t pay their rent can seek protection under a federal eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of March. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also issued an order last year that provides tenants a limited defense against eviction through the end of the state’s health emergency. The “right to counsel” bills next proceed to a committee vote, which will determine whether they receive full votes on the House and Senate floors. They are part of what some Democrats are calling the 2021 Housing Justice Package, a slate of legislation meant to support vulnerable renters by increasing the cost of filing eviction cases and establishing a court-based eviction diversion program, among other measures.
D.C. Health officials will begin releasing racial demographic information of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, as criticism grows that poor and predominantly Black neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic are facing hurdles to getting immunized. D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said the city will start making the information publicly available next week. The city has provided a ward-level breakdown of vaccine distribution, which shows residents in mostly wealthy and white areas of the city have received a disproportionate amount of vaccine doses, despite experiencing some of the lowest infection rates. “We have been focused on reaching the vulnerable populations of racial and ethnic minorities from the outset,” Nesbitt said at a press conference Thursday. “We are absolutely focused on equity and access.” Citywide, Black people make up 46% of the total population, according to U.S. Census data and 74% of COVID-19 deaths. Hispanic residents make up 11% of the population and 12% of deaths. White people make up 46% of the population and 11% of deaths. Nesbitt said it has been “tremendously challenging” getting vaccine providers to collect and record racial demographic information on who is getting immunized. She said 28% of people who have received the vaccine in the city are white and 15 percent are Black. The rest of the information is incomplete. The remaining recipients have been recorded as “unknown” or “other.” She said the city is working to improve its data collection, a problem that has plagued health officials across the country. Nesbitt said the city has taken several steps to increase vaccine accessibility, working with community organizations that serve vulnerable populations to raise awareness. D.C. has also ramped up staffing so there are more city workers available to help residents book appointments by phone instead of through an online portal. Earlier this month, as city officials broadened vaccine eligibility to people 65 and older, residents reported technical trouble as they tried to sign up for an appointment. The slots filled up within hours, with residents in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods signing up for most of the appointments. After criticism from some D.C. councilmembers, city health officials made more appointments available for residents in parts of the city that secured the fewest vaccine appointments. The city also started making appointments for residents in high-priority ZIP codes available a day before all other eligible residents. The city has administered 51,421 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, about 75% of its supply. The Biden Administration has promised to increase D.C.’s supply over the next three weeks by 15%, as demand outpaces availability.
Beginning Monday, Maryland’s bars and restaurants will no longer be required to close at 10 p.m. Gov. Larry Hogan said in a press release Thursday that the move was based on the state’s improving COVID-19 numbers. The state’s case rate is down by 37.1%, test positivity rate is down 34.7% and hospitalizations have dropped by 16.2%, Hogan said, and Maryland’s estimated transmission rate has remained below 1.0 since Dec. 27. That means each COVID-19 patient on average is transmitting the coronavirus to less than one other person — a sign the virus is retreating rather than spreading faster. “With our data trends showing continued improvement, the holiday surges behind us and the increasing speed of vaccinations, we are now able to take this step,” Hogan said. “Marylanders must continue to remain cautious and vigilant in order to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe and healthy.” The statewide limit of 50% indoor capacity at restaurants remains in place. Hogan also said that another $30 million has been allocated to the state’s relief program for food service establishments, adding to $50 million announced in October. Restaurants have to apply through their local jurisdictions.
Virginia’s COVID-related workplace health and safety standards became permanent on Wednesday after Gov. Ralph Northam approved the standard adopted by the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Safety and Health Codes Board last week. The regulations were temporary, and expired this week. The new regulations require all employers in the commonwealth to provide personal protective equipment when workers can’t physically distance, close or control access to common areas like lunchrooms, develop safe “return to work” plans for workers recovering from COVID-19 and regularly clean areas with heavy foot traffic, among other measures. Employees who interact with the public must wear masks. The standards vary for workplaces deemed “low,” “medium,” “high,” or “very high” risk for viral exposure. In high-risk workplaces, employees must be screened for symptoms before each work shift, and employers must inspect their air-handling systems to make sure they are circulating air safely. A provision in the standards notes that the board can reevaluate them after Northam lifts the statewide declaration of emergency. Worker advocates hope that a new federal safety standard is enacted before the pandemic ends. President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week instructing the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue revised COVID-19 guidance to employers and to consider implementing new emergency standards no later than March 15. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry adopted the state’s standards in the absence of new federal rules under the Trump administration. Since the pandemic began, OSHA has not issued any new enforceable health and safety requirements for employers. Virginia’s rules “reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and protect the health and safety of Virginia workers, consumers and communities as we move our commonwealth forward together,” Northam said in a press release. The standards have been hailed by labor unions and worker advocates across the state. During a public hearing earlier this month, Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays said safety standards benefit consumers, too, “because customers will not just feel safe but know they are safe as they frequent their favorite businesses.” Business interests worked unsuccessfully to block the regulations, saying a one-size-fits-all safety standard isn’t appropriate for every business and could put pressure on employers that have lost revenue during the health crisis. In public comments, the Virginia Business Coalition said permanent safety standards are no longer necessary now that vaccine distribution is beginning to ramp up. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry received more than 13,000 complaints related to COVID-19 risks in the workplace statewide, “with 100 needing full investigation due to serious concerns and 27 employers being cited,” according to the press release. Since Virginia enacted temporary health and safety rules for workplaces in July 2020, more than a dozen other states have taken similar steps, including California, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Minnesota.
Montgomery County Public Schools could bring small groups of special education and career and technical education students back to classrooms by the end of February. The final decision on when schools will open to all students will come at the Feb. 23 school board meeting. At the board’s meeting Thursday, several parents submitted testimony voicing their frustration that the schools haven’t already opened for in-person learning. Board member Rebecca Smondrowski pressed Supt. Jack Smith for more details on when a final decision on school reopening would be made, and how schools would operate when they do open. She told the board that parents are getting mixed information about what the return to school will look like and said, “I’ve gotten floods of people who are implying that when we open, it’s just going to be a babysitting service for their kids, especially for high school kids.” Board member Pat O’Neill said, “Many people expected that we would take a vote today.” She said that Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he would take whatever action he could legally to push schools to open by March 1 had also generated more questions about when students would return to the classroom. Smith said after the next board meeting that on Feb. 9, “Schools will swing into full communication mode with families” to explain how schools will open in the next few weeks. He said that there would be a phased process and that several models, including a mix of in-person and virtual learning, are under consideration. A final vote on school reopening would come when the school board meets Feb. 23, and the target date for return to classrooms remains March 15. Smith said it would be a “very significant day when we open the school doors and bring in whole grade levels of students.” But he sought to tamp down expectations that all students would be back in school at the same time for in-person instruction. Smith stressed that schools could reopen with just “40, or 50 or 60%” of any grade level in school buildings at first. “I just can’t say strongly enough that I believe we need to be moving forward as a school system that we are going to open…and not being in a defensive crouch,” board member Lynne Harris said. “The evidence is clear that virtual learning works for some, but it does not work for most. And many of our students are suffering potential irreversible learning loss.”
Fairfax County Public Schools’ COVID-19 vaccination process for teachers and staff resume after thousands of employees had appointments canceled this week when Inova Health ran out of vaccine. Emails to sign up again were sent late Wednesday night after the Fairfax County Health Department was alerted to a new batch of doses. The county health department is coordinating with Inova to vaccinate FCPS employees. “Many, many thousands of staff will be getting their vaccines Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell. It isn’t clear how many people were impacted by the shortage this week, but so far, about 22,000 people have signed up for vaccinations and about 7,000 school employees have received their first doses of the vaccine. “What we’re trying to do of course is prioritize staff who would be needed to return to schools and in centers in-person first,” Caldwell said. She added the county is aware that not everyone who had their appointments canceled this week has received a new link from the county health department to sign up again, and efforts to fix that are underway. On Feb. 2, Supt. Scott Brabrand wil update the school board on plans to reopen schools and get students back in the classroom. Right now, the goal is for that to begin Feb. 16. “We’re hoping — and very optimistic — that we will have as many staff vaccinated when those plans take place,” Caldwell said. Even if not everyone is fully vaccinated, the return to class is on track to move forward and that isn’t sitting well with one of the county’s teachers’ unions. Tiffany Finck-Haynes said the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers is “urging Fairfax County Public Schools to alter the return to school timeline” because of both the current health metrics in the county and the disruption to the vaccine distribution. The FCFT is reiterating its call for the county to adopt its reopening plan instead, focusing in particular on the current positivity rate in the county. The union said students should not return to the classroom until the positivity rate falls below 5% — it currently sits at 11.6% — which the union says is above the threshold the county set for itself.
Prince George’s County Public Schools staff will start getting COVID-19 vaccinations on Saturday as part of a push to get school employees vaccinated before students return to classrooms this spring. PGCPS is working with the county health department and Kaiser Permanente to vaccinate teachers and other staff members, according to a Thursday press release. “From the beginning of the pandemic, the safety of PGCPS employees and our students has been my top priority as we navigate these unprecedented times,” schools CEO Monica Goldson said in the release. “I encourage all employees to get vaccinated as a shield for their own health, their family’s well-being and for the safety of the children and families we serve.” Vaccine appointments this weekend are being offered to central office and school-based employees, including teachers, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex in Landover. Starting Feb. 3, the district will open appointments to support staff, including employees in building services, food and nutrition services, transportation and IT staff. Those appointments are from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday at the Kaiser Permanente Lanham Rehabilitation Center. The district is sending individual registration links directly to employees to make appointments and are telling staff members not to share their registration link with anyone. Staff members will need to use their school system email to register for their appointments and also need to take a work ID card or another form of employment verification, such as a printed pay stub or a supervisor’s memo to their appointment. School employees receive paid leave the day after their vaccine appointment — or the Monday after for people vaccinated on weekends. Teachers are to provide either recorded lessons or independent work for their students that day. “We are encouraging all employees to get vaccinated for their safety as well as their family’s safety,” PGCPS spokesperson Gabrielle Chew said in an email. “In an effort to allow for a recuperation period, some classes may be asynchronous, rather than live, to accommodate employees who recently received a vaccination. We want to make this as seamless as possible.” In neighboring Montgomery County, teachers are beginning to receive vaccine this week from Johns Hopkins and Suburban Hospital. Overall, there are 8,775 doses of the vaccine, but the doses will be shared by public school employees and regular hospital patients who are older than 65. School employees eligible for the vaccine doses are being identified by Montgomery County Public Schools and referred to the hospital for scheduling.
Scott A. Ziegler, the interim superintendent for Loudoun County Public Schools, asked for patience, grace, flexibility and comfort with the unknown amid increased attention after a parent expressed his frustration during a school board meeting Tuesday on school reopening. “Following Tuesday’s school board meeting there has been increased media attention paid to Loudoun County, specifically regarding the reopening of schools,” Ziegler said in a letter to the school community on Thursday. “This has led to some inflammatory rhetoric being shared on social media and in email and phone communications with staff.” A parent addressed the school board during the public comment portion of the meeting and called its members “cowards hiding behind our children as an excuse for keeping schools closed.” Video of what happened was shared by Aliscia Andrews online. The father mentioned statistics that claim that the vast majority of people are not at risk for the virus. More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. The father then said that garbage workers risk their lives every day more than anyone in the school system, before telling the school board to, “Figure it out, or get off the podium! Because you know what? There are people like me and a lot of other people out there who will gladly take your seat and figure it out.” Ziegler said LCPS staff, the school board and himself, along with the community, have the common goal to return students to school safely as soon as possible. “We may disagree on the methods and timetable to return students to in-person learning, but I would like us to agree that we all have our students’ best interests at heart,” Ziegler said in the letter. He said the subject of getting students back to classrooms can provoke many emotions, including frustration and anger, and he asks that the school community consider “patience, flexibility, comfort with the not-yet-known and grace.” The school board will vote next Tuesday on a plan that would have pre-K through fifth grade students whose parents chose hybrid learning back in classrooms no later than Feb. 16. If approved, middle and high schoolers whose parents have already opted in to the model would return to classrooms for two days per week by March 3.
The Biden administration will increase D.C.’s COVID-19 vaccine allotment 15% over the next three weeks in an effort to address the city’s pleas for more doses. D.C. Health expects to receive 9,475 doses from the federal government next week. A 15% increase would add roughly 1,400 doses to that number. “Mayor Bowser and D.C. Health, led by Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, recognized this announcement as a promising indicator of the new administration’s commitment to increasing the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine,” according to a statement Wednesday from the mayor’s office. “And while the mayor will continue to advocate for Washington, D.C. to receive more doses, the District continues to make progress in vaccinating District residents and workers.” So far, a limited supply has been the biggest constraint in the city’s vaccination efforts, as demand for the vaccines far outpaces the weekly allotments. Bowser and Nesbitt have repeatedly stressed the need for more vaccines — Nesbitt even wore a “D.C. NEEDS MORE VACCINES” face mask during a recent press conference. They blame the city’s vaccine rollout issues to a supply shortage, not the city’s ability to effectively distribute the doses. “We know that demand in D.C. is very high,” Bowser said last week, adding that the city would be working with the Biden administration to boost D.C.’s allotment. “We know, too, from our sister cities around the country that they too are experiencing high demand for the vaccine and scarcity of vaccine. So we will continue to advocate for more doses so that we can protect more people in Washington more quickly.” The high demand has made booking appointments on the city’s vaccination website difficult for residents and created wide gaps in access as slots fill up shortly after opening. Every Thursday at 9 a.m., the city opens the website for eligible residents in wards 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8 in an attempt to correct for vaccination disparities in these lower-income and/or majority-Black wards. Appointments open to residents in all eight wards every Friday. Even with this staggered approach, appointments have been filled in minutes. On Wednesday, Bowser announced changes to the city’s online portal to make registration easier for residents and quadrupled the number of representatives to assist residents booking vaccine appointments by phone on Thursday mornings, bringing the number to 200. As of Jan. 23, the city has administered 51,421 doses of the vaccine. On Tuesday, the city began vaccinating in-person D.C. Public School and charter school staff. According to the press release, 2,542 of the 3,840 appointments for DCPS staff have been filled and 460 doses administered. Likewise, 1,015 of 1,025 appointments for public charter school teachers and staff have been booked. According to the press release, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also began contacting licensed childcare providers to gather information for future vaccine distribution when doses become available. Workers and advocates have criticized the city for excluding childcare workers in this week’s phased rollout to in-person school staff.
Saying “I understand your frustrations” with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday outlined how the commonwealth plans to improve distribution and let residents know more clearly where they stand to get a vaccination. A new executive order extended current safety regulations through the end of February. Northam said the rollout problems in the commonwealth are a matter of supply and logistics. “People can only get shots if there are shots to give. I know you’re frustrated and out of patience, and I understand it,” Northam said. Following a phone call Tuesday with his fellow governors and the White House, Northam said he had two pieces of good news: States will get 16% more doses immediately, starting with the order officials place today; and that increase is locked in, so states can plan for a month rather than week to week. Northam said that on the call, he heard a commitment at the national level “I haven’t heard since the beginning of the pandemic.” Earlier this month, outgoing U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar directed states to increase eligibility for vaccines to all people 65 and older, or else they would lose out on an increase in allocations, Northam said. Virginia complied, and two days later, he said, it turned out there were no more doses to give anyway. He reiterated the goal that all Americans who want to be vaccinated should be able to get one by the end of summer. “That’s our country’s goal; that’s Virginia’s goal, and we are committed,” Northam said. The Virginia Department of Health is now allocating vaccine based on population, with half going to vaccinate people 65 and older with the other half for frontline essential workers, such as first responders and teachers, and people who are at increased risk of severe illness. He said those groups are very large, and it will take several weeks to get them all vaccinated. “You deserve to know what’s going on and what happens next,” Northam said, unveiling a new dashboard to let Virginians know on one website how many people have been vaccinated, how many doses of vaccine have been distributed and where the people and vaccines are located. He also directed VDH to set up a single place for all Virginians to call for information on when they can sign up. “I take this seriously, because I know people just want answers,” even if they have to wait for a vaccine, Northam said. “I hear you, and we’re getting this fixed.” He also added that more Virginians have been vaccinated against COVID-19 than had contracted it.
The federal government will give $402 million to Marylanders who need help paying their rent. Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that the federal government was providing $258.1 million to the state to be administered through the Department of Housing and Community Development and another $143 million directly to Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and Baltimore City. The state is waiting on regulatory guidance from the federal government on how the money can be used. In the meantime, DHCD Secretary Ken Holt is talking with Maryland General Assembly leaders about forming a bipartisan group to help develop a state plan. “We continue to back one of the strongest eviction moratoriums in the country with direct relief for rental payments, legal services and affordable housing,” Hogan said in a statement. “We look forward to working with legislative leaders to determine the best way to utilize these resources for Marylanders in need.”
The Loudoun County Public Schools Board will vote next Tuesday on a plan that would have pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students whose parents chose hybrid learning return to classrooms no later than Feb. 16. If approved, middle and high school students whose parents opted in to the hybrid model would return to classrooms two days per week by March 3. On Tuesday, LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler presented the current return to school proposal. In December, a jump in the number of positive COVID-19 cases prompted a return to 100% virtual learning. The board said it will vote on the proposal and any proposed amendments in its Feb. 2 meeting. During the public comment period, more than a dozen parents voiced concern that their children’s well-being and education are being harmed by not attending classes in person alongside their peers and teachers. “How do you expect a five-year-old to handle this situation? She should be excited to go to school, to grow, to learn, to thrive,” said one mother. Another mother cited a Chinese proverb: “‘Teachers open the door, but you must enter (by yourself).’ Right now, you have thousands of kids banging on the door for education, yet Loudoun has chosen to close the door.” More than 6,000 LCPS teachers have received their first dose of coronavirus vaccine. Given the nationwide shortage of vaccines, some teachers told the board they wouldn’t feel safe returning to in-person learning until staff is fully immunized. “We are on the precipice of that happening,” said one parent who urged continued patience. “Please don’t break the dam while the floodwaters are still high, and it’s about to recede.”
Georgetown University is pursuing disciplinary action against students it says received the coronavirus vaccine despite not currently being eligible under D.C.’s vaccination plan. Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is only available to third- and fourth-year Georgetown medical school students because they regularly interact with patients in a healthcare setting. But administrators recently learned of doses being administered to students who do not work in healthcare settings despite their current ineligibility, and will take action to discipline them. “These actions run contrary to Georgetown’s values as a Jesuit institution, teaching our students to be in service to others,” a university spokesperson said Tuesday, adding school officials had taken “the necessary steps” to prevent further unauthorized vaccinations. The university did not say how the students accessed the vaccine without eligibility nor how many were involved, citing federal privacy regulations. Georgetown does not have its own supply or allotment of vaccines, according to the school’s website, and administers them through providers authorized by D.C. Health. The city has opened up doses for residents 65 and older, in-person school teachers, law enforcement and healthcare workers.
Maryland officials are opening six mass-vaccination sites, including one at Six Flags America, in an effort to ramp up the state’s vaccine rollout in anticipation of receiving more doses from the federal government. On Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the Maryland Department of Health and National Guard will open and operate the six sites. Sites at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County and the Baltimore Convention Center will open by Feb. 5, with others at M&T Bank Stadium, on the Eastern Shore and in western and southern Maryland to follow. Hundreds of National Guard troops who were sent to D.C. to protect the U.S. Capitol during the presidential inauguration “will be immediately reassigned to help plan, build and launch these mass vaccination sites,” Hogan said. Work at the Six Flags site has already begun. “We’re dealing with what we can actually control here at the state level by building the broadest possible vaccination network to further expand deployment for the maximum utilization of the limited doses as we receive them,” Hogan said. According to state officials, 396,661 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the state so far, including 75.9% of first doses and 59.4% of first and second doses. But like in many places in the DMV and U.S., demand outpaces supply. At least two million people in the state are currently eligible to receive the vaccine, three times the number of doses available. The majority of doses, more than 245,000, have gone to white residents, while only a quarter of that have gone to Black residents. While Hogan said he hopes the federal government will be able to ramp up supply of vaccines, he is more worried about administering the vaccines quickly and efficiently. Giant Foods, Martin’s and Walmart are now vaccinating people in Maryland. Hogan said that by next week at least 51 Safeway and RiteAid retail pharmacies will also offer the vaccine. The state has also started a mobile vaccination unit to get to “hard to reach” areas of the state. Anyone seeking a vaccination at either a county-run site or pharmacy must make an appointment. “Due to the extremely limited supply of vaccines, these appointments will fill up very quickly, and you should expect to be put on a waiting list,” Hogan said. As of Monday, anyone 65 or older is eligible to receive the vaccine. Dr. David Marcozzi, incident commander with the University of Maryland Medical System, said those who are immunocompromised are also eligible. That includes people with a wide variety of medical conditions like cancer, end-stage renal disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, solid organ transplant recipient, sickle cell and diabetes.
Members of Virginia’s congressional delegation asked the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to choose Northern Virginia as a mass vaccination site for the COVID-19 vaccine. Reps. Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly and Jennifer Wexton said in a letter to Acting Administrator Robert Fenton that “Northern Virginia already has the capacity” to administer many more vaccine doses than it has been. “For example, Arlington County is receiving roughly 2,700 doses per week but has the capacity to do at least 1,000 per day,” they said. The representatives also said the desire to get vaccinated is there, saying that Alexandria, population 160,000, has a vaccine waiting list of 25,000 and Fairfax County’s waiting list is over 100,000. “Staffing is not the limiting factor, supply is,” they wrote. Aaron Fritschner, Beyer’s communications director, said that many other areas of the country have additional logistical problems regarding getting vaccines into people, such as shortages of supplies. “Here, the only problem is that we don’t have enough vaccines. We have the people; we have the interest. There are high school football stadiums, there are places you can do this,” Fritschner said. At the same time, a group of local leaders has done much the same on the state level. The Northern Virginia Regional Commission has written to Gov. Ralph Northam, looking for more doses of vaccines, saying that they had already vaccinated 100,000 people in their area and could do much more. The commission includes the board chairs of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the mayors of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, Manassas Park, Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg, Middleburg and Vienna. The letter, emailed to Northam on Sunday and posted to Facebook on Tuesday, said, “We need a streamlined process to release doses directly to NOVA, provide the ability to detail who has doses and finally allow our region priority as we are ready and able to vaccinate significant numbers now. Simply put, the problem is a sufficient, predictable and equitable supply of vaccine.” By the end of last week, they said, about 100,000 people in the region had been vaccinated in total, and they claimed that they could do that every week. Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokesperson, said in a statement: “The governor shares the frustration in Northern Virginia — and across the commonwealth — that the national vaccine supply is currently so limited.” She said 100,000 doses is roughly the number of doses the entire commonwealth gets in a week, and it is about a third of what Virginia’s local health departments requested. “The governor is working closely with President Biden and his team as they ramp up production,” the statement said. “Now that we have a partner in Washington, we’re hopeful that supply will increase in the coming weeks.” She added that Virginia has given out nearly 7,000 doses per 100,000 people, better than 24 states, including neighboring Maryland, Tennessee and North Carolina. She also said Northam would address the issue of vaccine distribution in a news conference today. Fritschner, from Beyer’s office, said of the letter, “We are all trying to do the same thing, which is to increase the vaccine supply in Northern Virginia.”
D.C. Public Schools’ teachers and staff who will be returning to in-person learning started receiving the coronavirus vaccine Tuesday. Appointments are available through Saturday for any staff working in person, which includes security staff, those in food services and bus drivers. DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said that some 6,000 employees are expected to be working in person, and 3,900 slots for vaccinations are available this week at a clinic by Children’s National Hospital at Dunbar High School. Ferebee was among the first to get vaccinated Tuesday, along with staff from Patterson Elementary, McKinley Technical High School and Tyler Elementary School, a DCPS spokesperson said. The beginning of Term 3 on Feb. 1 is the target date for schools to welcome students who accepted a seat for in-person learning. As of Tuesday, 4,900 elementary school students and 2,200 students in grades 6-12 have accepted an in-person seat for Term 3. Approximately 4,200, or 54% of teachers and staff are working in-person. Every school in the city will offer a range of options, including in-person learning with teachers, CARE classrooms or self-contained classrooms for special education students.
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Prince William County has left residents frustrated, with eligibility requirements changing and a lack of supply prompting county officials to stop scheduling first-dose appointments until at least Feb. 15. But Dr. Alison Ansher, health director for the Prince William Health District, said a change in its scheduling system should improve the vaccination process. The health district, which also covers Manassas City and Manassas Park, uses scheduling software that the federal government introduced, complicating the sign-up process. No matter where a vaccine clinic is located in Virginia, anyone across the country could see it and sign up. But, starting early next month, the health district will use PrepMod, software that some hospitals in Northern Virginia also use. Ansher is hopeful it will facilitate enrollment at a time when vaccine supply is limited. “[The new software] has a better vaccine tracking system as part of this electronic system,” Ansher said. “Unfortunately, we thought it would be better to halt the appointments in the old system until the new system was up and running. They’ll probably overlap for a very small amount of time.”
Maryland entered Phase 1C of the its coronavirus vaccination rollout, but Montgomery County is lagging behind. The county just began vaccinating residents 75 and older on Tuesday, and residents in lower-priority groups began preregistering for vaccine appointments online at noon, health officials told the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday. But many residents received conflicting messages about when they can receive a shot, officials said. The main problem is demand for vaccine has outpaced supply, the county’s health department said in a press release on Tuesday. More than 50,000 residents at least 75 years old have preregistered for appointments, but the county only gets an average of 6,000 doses per week. But the shortage is being worsened by confusing messaging from the county, the state and residents who are signing up for appointments improperly, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Earl Stoddard told the council. While the state sends out information about vaccinations on the statewide schedule, county residents have been disappointed to find that Montgomery County isn’t on the same page. At the same time, individuals who have received links to sign up for appointments are sharing the links with friends, family and others, Stoddard said, creating confusion at vaccination sites. Hundreds of people in lower-priority groups have been turned away from appointments as a result. “Then we look like the bad guys who have to cancel out their appointments,” Stoddard said. According to Stoddard, the county will be forced to cancel appointments for ineligible residents as long as the state’s preregistration system allows people to share appointment links and sign up before they are actually eligible for a vaccine. At a press conference later Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan said he had spoken to leaders in both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties about people sharing the links for appointments. “This is an old system that is run by a private contractor that was for other types of vaccines and other things. I think we’ve addressed the issue. People were going on there mistakenly and trying to book appointments. It was for other types of medical things and flu shots. It’s not where you should be going,” Hogan said. Acting Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader added that the state is building a more robust system for COVID vaccines that is expected to be completed within the next day or so. “The volume and the scale of what we need for COVID is so much greater that this particular website isn’t going to be able to handle that volume, but we don’t want to cut it off because it’s important to citizens,” he said. It is also difficult to understand who is next in line for a vaccine when some private providers receiving doses from the state are on a different schedule than the county’s health department, council member Gabe Albornoz said, adding that council members are working on a joint letter to Hogan that he says will try to “clarify issues we don’t have control over in the county.” The number of vaccines given to local health departments in Maryland does not include the doses provided to hospitals, pharmacies and other private providers, according to Schrader. Residents can register for vaccines through those different providers, meaning one person could be taking up multiple appointment slots. “There’s no unified system at the state level,” said Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. “Preregistration is very much an honor system.” The rollout has also been plagued by equity issues, as white residents signed up for vaccine appointments at much higher rates than others, a similar problem that has been evident in D.C. and Virginia. More than 70% of Montgomery County residents who preregistered for the vaccine are white, according to health department data, while white residents make up 60% of the county’s population. Just 6% of pre-registrants identify as Black, while 20% of the county’s population is Black or African American. Latino residents are signing up in similarly disproportionate numbers. The county is opening a call center so residents who lack internet access can sign up for vaccine, Crowel said. “Access is going to be an ongoing challenge to many folks,” he said. Montgomery County has more than 1 million residents. As of last week, it was allocated 1.9 vaccines per 100 people by the state. Prince George’s County, with more than 900,000 residents, was allocated 1.6 vaccines per 100 residents, according to state health department data cross-referenced with Census data. By comparison, Calvert County, which has a little less than 92,000 people, was given 4.3 vaccines per 100 residents and Kent County, with just 19,500 residents, was given 8.2 vaccines per 100 residents. Montgomery County residents who receive an invitation to make a vaccination appointment this week are being prioritized according to ZIP code, Crowel says, as the county focuses on residents of hardest-hit communities first. “As a practical matter, attacking this virus in places where it has the greatest toehold, where it has had the greatest impact, is how we’re going to kill it,” he said.
The Maryland State Board of Education denied a request from Montgomery County Public Schools to cancel four days in the beginning of March, when the MCPS is scheduled to phase back into in-person learning. In a letter to the state board, MCPS Supt. Jack Smith said a waiver for March 9-12 is necessary to allow teachers to set up classrooms, practice compliance with coronavirus protocols and finalize student schedules and transportation matters. “The waiver of four days will allow staff to complete this important work without requiring divided attention from virtual instruction and support for students,” the letter said. Smith also requested the waiver because the county will “start with our youngest learners and students with the greatest need for learning support, some of whom have never navigated a school building before.” But in its response, the state said to be eligible for a waiver, school systems are required to prove they made an effort to comply with the state’s 180 school day requirement. It did not believe MCPS did so. In the response, State Superintendent Karen Salmon said MCPS didn’t use the make-up days included in its calendars and didn’t propose an extension to the school year, which is currently scheduled to end in June. “The implementation of in-person instruction should be accomplished without decreasing the required 180-days and reducing instruction for already struggling students,” Salmon wrote. Some MCPS students were originally scheduled to return to classrooms Feb. 1, but the county school board pushed that date to March 15 earlier this month. The school board is scheduled to meet Feb. 23, when it will discuss the status of its plans for in-person learning. “We are committed to ensuring our staff has adequate time to prepare for the safe return of students to buildings,” a county spokesperson said in a statement. “We will explore alternative plans to provide this needed time in the coming weeks.”
Northern Virginia reported its first known case of the more contagious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant. The Virginia Department of Health announced the diagnosis on Monday but declined to provide details on the case, including where in Northern Virginia the person lives, but said they had not traveled recently. The B.1.1.7 strain, first detected in the United Kingdom, was identified and confirmed by the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services using sequencing technology that provides a genetic blueprint of the virus. “Viruses change all the time, and we expect to see new strains as disease spreads,” State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver said. “We know this variant strain spreads more quickly between people than other strains currently circulating in our communities, but we still have more to learn about whether it causes more severe illness.” State and local health officials are urging Virginians to be vigilant in wearing masks, practice social distancing and contribute to contact tracing efforts. The U.S. has reported nearly 200 cases of the new variant in 23 states, including two cases reported in Maryland earlier this month.
Prince George’s County officials canceled all COVID-19 vaccination appointments made by people who don’t live or work in the county to prioritize the county’s residents 75 and older and make sure they are not stuck “in the back of the line.” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced the move during a press conference Monday. When the county first opened vaccine appointments to people age 75 and older under Phase 1B of Maryland’s vaccine plan, the state-run scheduling system did not allow the county to screen out nonresidents, and it was swamped with appointments from people outside the county. “There were a good number of people who signed up through that website who were not Prince Georgians,” Alsobrooks said. About a third of vaccinations of those 75 and older were of people who don’t live in the county, county Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said. Last week, Alsobrooks said the county would honor appointments, including nonresidents, through Feb. 9, after which all appointments would be reset and only residents would be allowed to schedule appointments. But Alsobrooks and Carter said Monday they decided to restrict appointments more quickly given the extremely limited supply of vaccines. Now, providers will check ID for proof of residency or employment “for every vaccination appointment going forward,” Alsobrooks said. Both apologized to county residents that so many appointments intended for Prince George’s residents were booked by nonresidents. “I have heard loudly and clearly about the concerns,” Alsobrooks said. “I know it caused great concern, great consternation, as it should have. We’re doing everything we can to prioritize Prince Georgians in our vaccine effort. And we’re making sure that residents have first access to this lifesaving medicine and are not in the back of the line.” If there were a more abundant supply of the vaccines and a national distribution plan, the county would be able to vaccinate nonresidents, Carter said. “But we have neither. So, we have to do it this way to ensure that our Prince George’s County residents get vaccinated.” The only exception is for those who received their first dose in the county. Appointments for second doses will be honored, Alsobrooks said. The vaccine rollout across the U.S. has led to frustrations over limited supply. Neighboring Montgomery County hasn’t yet started vaccinating those 75 and older even because of limited supply although they are eligible. Montgomery County officials said last week they were aware of reports that some residents had driven to Prince George’s to get vaccinations. Even with the limited supply, state officials moved to expand eligibility. Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan announced those 75 and older were eligible to receive the vaccine starting Jan. 18, and those 65-74 started Monday under Phase 1C. Alsobrooks said older county residents should preregister now for vaccine appointments on the county’s website. They will be contacted when it is time to make an actual appointment and will be given a private link to do so. Alsobrooks emphasized that it could be several weeks before residents in the 65-74 age group can begin making appointments. There are about 95,000 county residents in Phase 1B, which is still ongoing, before the county begins Phase 1C shots. The county is administering about 1,000 shots a day, although it expects to ramp up in the weeks ahead. The county’s website says those in Phase 1C will likely be able to start making appointments to get their shots in early to mid-March. In addition to those age 65-74, Phase 1C includes grocery store workers, public transit workers and postal workers.
Inova Health on Monday canceled all first dose COVID-19 vaccine appointments due to supply limitations. “Last week, in response to a national shortage of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Virginia Department of Health made a modification to their vaccine distribution methods and announced that going forward, vaccines will be sent directly to health districts to be allocated appropriately. As a result, Inova’s allocation of vaccine has been severely diminished, causing us to make the difficult decision to prioritize the available doses. Due to these supply limitations, first dose appointments are cancelled as of Jan. 26, 2021 for the foreseeable future,” the hospital system said in a press release Monday. Those who received a first dose from Inova and are scheduled for a second dose appointment will be prioritized and those appointments will be honored. “When we receive more supply inventory, we will first prioritize patients who had an appointment scheduled and then focus on opening further appointments up to eligible groups,” the statement said. “If you are a patient whose appointment is cancelled, rest assured we are working diligently to identify new supply and will reach out to reschedule your appointment as soon as we are confident we have a vaccine for you.” But that will take time. Currently, the commonwealth is only receiving 105,000 doses a week from the federal government. Jeff McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board, said in a separate statement that it isn’t just a nationwide shortage causing the local crunch. It is also due to Virginia changing distribution to “per capita, as opposed to the amounts [counties and hospitals] have ordered.” He said the county will work to help Inova honor its commitments to people who already had appointments. “We will also continue to work through our registration queue and offer appointments in the order in which people have registered,” he said. Virginia is currently in Phase 1B of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout. That group includes K-12 educators. After learning that employees for Fairfax County Public Schools would have to wait longer for a shot from Inova, a teachers union called on the district to adjust plans to bring students back into classrooms. “We urge Fairfax County Public Schools to alter the return to school timeline given the current health metrics and this unfortunate shift in vaccine availability for school staff,” said Tina Williams, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser got her first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine during a press conference Monday at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center. “I hate needles,” Bowser said before getting her vaccination. “But it is important for all of us to get the vaccine when it’s our turn so that we can get our lives back to normal. And people rightly have questions and concerns. And I hear those questions in my social circle and circle of family and friends who are asking questions, educating themselves, so that they’re prepared when it’s their turn. And so I want to let everybody know, I’ve done all of that — important questions and asking and getting the answers that I need.” An advanced urgent care nurse administered Bowser’s dose and added that the mayor’s second dose has already been scheduled. About 50 people in D.C.’s emergency operations center will also get their first doses. The mayor’s vaccination comes amid D.C. Public Schools teachers and staff also starting to get their vaccinations, a week before thousands of students return to classrooms for in-person learning. During the press conference, D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt called the city’s supply of shots “dismal.” Nesbitt, wearing a mask that read “DC NEEDS MORE VACCINE,” said the city’s efforts to combat the coronavirus are being hampered by a lack of vaccine. “We simply do not have enough vaccine. So even with our best plans, and us rolling out the phases and the tiers two weeks ago, we are still in a position where we cannot implement fully any tier of a specific phase,” Nesbitt said. “So our goal of creating tiers within our phases was that we would be able to fully implement a tier of a phase. But we can’t even manage to do that with the dismal amount of vaccines that we are receiving.” Bowser said D.C. is considering whether to create a waitlist for vaccinations. “Well, you can have anxiety for one week, or you can have anxiety waiting for months with a waitlist or a date. So we are carefully considering all of our options,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re waiting to have a waitlist, but we want to make sure that we have the best processes in place. And so we’ll continue to consider that.”
The number of places administering COVID-19 vaccines in Montgomery County is growing, but some may have different rules for who can get a shot. Whether someone is able to receive the vaccine beginning at 65 or 75 years old depends on who is administering the shots. People 75 and older are now able to register for vaccine appointments at Montgomery County Health Department clinics, and the county is beginning to send links to make appointments to seniors who have preregistered. But people 65 and older may be able to sign up for appointments at other clinics in the county through Maryland Department of Health partnerships. In Montgomery County, four Giant Food pharmacies are now allowing people to register for COVID-19 vaccines. Other Giant locations across the state are also offering vaccine appointments. In addition, locations may soon open up at Safeway, Rite Aid and CVS. However, those arrangements made through the state health department use different criteria and a different registration system, according to a Monday press conference that included Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker. For example, even though the county health department hasn’t started providing registrations for residents age 65-74 yet, Giant said its vaccination appointments are open to anyone eligible for shots 65 and older. However, just as with the county’s clinics, there appears to be high demand for the vaccines through Giant pharmacies. On the Giant Pharmacy COVID-19 vaccine page, the link to the scheduling portal takes visitors to a landing page. Shortly after 2 p.m. Monday, there were more than 13,000 people waiting in the digital line, and the time to reach the actual scheduling page was running several hours. As of 7:20 p.m., a message on the site said it was down for maintenance. You can see the full list of Giant locations offering vaccine appointments on the Maryland state coronavirus website. Some Walmart and Weis stores in Maryland are also offering vaccine appointments, although none in Montgomery County yet, according to the state’s list.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland is turning up the heat on Montgomery County to loosen its indoor dining restrictions. RAM is calling out the county after Prince George’s County announced it would allowing indoor dining at 25% capacity beginning Friday. D.C. and Baltimore City also dropped their bans last Friday. Indoor dining in Montgomery County has been banned since Dec. 10. “Montgomery County is now on an island all by themselves,” association president and CEO Marshall Weston said. He cited falling COVID-19 metrics in Montgomery County, such as the positivity rate, which currently stands at 6.6%, according to RAM’s news release. It also noted that Prince George’s positivity rate is higher at 9.6%. “When you’re really looking at all the metrics that Montgomery County claims to be watching, we see good news and good signs,” Weston said. But Montgomery County’s COVID-19 dashboard does cite what it categorizes as “very high risk of transmission” data, such as the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, which stood at 35.4 as of Monday. Weston believes there are other better-looking county metrics, such as falling hospitalizations and that the number of cases has dropped “by double digits over the past two weeks.” Montgomery County’s dashboard reported 460 new cases on Jan. 11 compared to 400 on Jan. 25. Weston believes restaurants are not the problem with spreading COVID-19 but can be part of the solution. “Because restaurants continue to offer a safe and regulated space for people to gather, and without a place to go such as restaurants, people continue to have parties and gather in their own homes, which we know with certainty is the No. 1 cause of COVID-19 spread,” Weston said.
Dupont Festival’s annual Groundhog Day ceremony featuring Potomac Phil has been canceled this year to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Every year, hundreds gather at Dupont Circle on Feb. 2 to revel in Potomac Phil’s appearance. Usually the rigid, stuffed marmot, which has made an appearance at Dupont annually since 2012, is there to make two predictions unlike his more popular, historic, living brethren, who only offers up one. Potomac Phil predicts what the weather will bring to outdoors and what politics will bring to the halls of government. The six more weeks of winter is usually shadow-dependent; the six more months of political gridlock comes rain or shine. There may not be any ceremony this year, but Potomac Phil will still be at the circle from 8-11 a.m. next Tuesday for pictures. But nothing else, even the accordions, will be there.
Prince George’s County is cracking down on the large number of people coming from other jurisdictions to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. When preregistering to be a part of Phase 1C of the vaccine rollout, the county will limit sign-ups to only people who live and work in the county. The county will enter Phase 1C of its rollout today. Those who can register include people 65-74; health and public safety workers; essential employees, including food and agriculture workers; public transit workers; and postal service employees. In her weekly newsletter to the community Saturday, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said the county will also require proof of residency or proof of employment in Prince George’s County at the appointment for COVID-19 vaccination. The county is currently vaccinating individuals in phases 1A and 1B — hospital staff and healthcare workers, first responders, residents and staff at long-term care facilities, people 75 and older, teachers and school staff, and childcare workers. On Tuesday, the county heath department “reset” all vaccination appointments scheduled after Feb. 9 and required that all applicants preregister with the county going forward. Alsobrooks said in her newsletter the reset allowed “vulnerable” residents and those who work in the county to move up in the appointment order. “Our health department closed the ability for individuals to access county clinics through the state vaccination website, at the beginning of this week, and has continued to review and replace people who registered and are not in 1A or 1B,” Alsobrooks said. “The county will continue to schedule and replace appointments through the pre-registration information exclusively.”
Public health data show that Virginia is lagging when it comes to tracking COVID-19 vaccinations by race and ethnicity. Virginia is one of only 17 states that were publicly reporting COVID-19 vaccination data by race and ethnicity as of last week. But the state’s COVID-19 website indicates that race and ethnicity data has not been reported for more than half of the roughly 475,000 people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Virginia public health officials have said they will distribute the vaccine equitably, but researchers say that goal will be difficult to achieve without accounting for demographic data.
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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.