D.C. Water Helps Renters, Condo Owners
COVID-19 Cases Reach 926,137 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 37,877 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 947 deaths; there have been 362,084 cases in Maryland with 7,150 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 526,176 cases with 6,773 deaths Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Since the pandemic began, Washingtonians are roughly $20 million behind on their water bills, up from $12 million nearly a year ago, according to D.C. Water. There are a number of emergency assistance programs for people falling behind on water bills, but what about people whose landlords or homeowners’ associations pay the water bill, passing along the cost in rent or fees? A new program provides assistance for people living in multi-unit apartment or condo buildings affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, who make less than 80% of the area median income. “We realize there’s a segment of our population in the city — a big segment — that lives in apartments and they are also struggling financially. But the fact that they don’t pay a water bill doesn’t mean that there’s not a way for us to assist them,” said D.C. Water spokesperson Vincent Morris. There are an estimated 180,000 people in D.C. who pay for their water through rent or HOA fees, according to Morris. Of that number, he says roughly 9,000 are thought to be income-eligible for the new assistance program. “There’s a lot of people in the city who are hurting, who are unemployed or have had their income reduced significantly,” said Morris. “So we’ve tried to respond to that by adding these assistance programs.” The new program begins Monday, Feb. 8. It was approved by D.C. Water’s board of directors on Thursday. It will provide a one-time credit of up to $2,000 per eligible customer — the exact amount to be calculated based on a building’s average water bill, divided by the number of housing units it contains. Tenants must apply for the program, and the assistance will show up as a credit on their landlord’s water bill. Landlords must then pass on 90% of that credit to the eligible tenant in the form of a reduction in rent. “We credit the owner and then the owner turns around and credits their tenant,” said Morris. In effect, D.C. Water is helping pay the rent. The program will cost the water utility an estimated $2.4 million-$4 million, funded by its cash surplus. The assistance program is slated to end at the end of fiscal year 2021, but could go on longer if D.C. Water’s board approves an extension.
Virginia Department of Transportation officials are temporarily pausing deactivations of idle E-ZPass accounts during the pandemic. VDOT spokesperson Melodie N. Martin said the agency generally asks drivers to return the state-owned transponders when they aren’t used for more than 12 months. But there is now a six-month pause on such requests. E-ZPass allows drivers to pass through tollbooths without paying cash. Money is deducted from an account when a vehicle with a transponder passes through. VDOT contacts drivers after a year without activity on their accounts. Those accounts are moved to “inactive status” if the user fails to respond after 30 days.
A new University of Maryland School of Medicine study involving people previously infected with COVID-19 suggests the immune response from getting sick may act like getting a first dose of those double-shot vaccines. UMD researchers believe their findings may help inform decisions for how to make the most of limited vaccine supplies. “With a single dose, the healthcare workers who previously had had COVID had a really strong response,” said study co-author Dr. Anthony Harris, professor of epidemiology and public health. The immune response of previously-infected people was similar to the response typically seen on a second dose of vaccination. “That strong response would suggest that in a time of vaccine shortage, maybe those would be the people who should get a single-dose vaccine,” he said. A second suggestion is that if vaccines are scarce, people who have already had COVID-19 could be moved lower on priority lists according to Harris and study co-author Dr. Mohammad Sajadi, associate professor of medicine, a physician-scientist at the Institute of Human Virology and a member of the Global Virus Network. Harris also noted that a just-released study from the U.K. suggests that the immune response after being sick with COVID-19 protects people for at least six months. The practice of withholding second dose booster shots already is happening in Canada and the U.K. where Harris believes the science behind the vaccine’s trials combined with the science behind his study’s data can be helpful in deploying a successful strategy with limited supplies. “I would say if you’re already going to a single dose — go to a single dose for people who’ve already have had COVID infection and give your highest-risk population who haven’t had COVID two doses,” Harris said. The UMD study was small, but Harris said the findings weren’t unexpected because the way vaccines generally work is to boost previous responses. “Even though the sample size is small — and definitely our study needs to be replicated because we only had 59 healthcare workers — the differences are so dramatic that statistical significance was easily achieved,” Harris said.
Early data from Virginia schools indicate that students are struggling academically as most school districts continue to operate totally or partially online during the pandemic. It is a concern that educators have raised as they continue to navigate virtual instruction. According to a survey of all 132 local districts conducted by the Virginia Department of Education, 40 ranked failing students as the biggest issue with remote learning, even above access to reliable internet, which was the highest concern for about 35 districts. Nearly two dozen districts reported that the percentage of high school and middle school students failing two or more classes had grown by more than 30% compared to last school year. And more than 50 districts reported higher rates of absenteeism than the previous year. The pandemic’s effect on students has been a continuing concern as it stretches into 2021. In late March, Virginia became one of the first states in the country to close both public and private schools for the remainder of the year. Gov. Ralph Northam described it as a “period of sacrifice” amid early uncertainty over how the virus could affect students, teachers and families. As of Jan. 26, 42 of the state’s 132 school districts are still operating entirely online. But Northam and state education officials are now pushing a return to classrooms as research suggests that schools can minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure. “While we must remain vigilant regarding the prevention and spread of SARS-CoV-2, we need to balance this important objective with the shared goal of providing in-person educational instruction to the children of Virginia,” Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver and State Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane wrote in a joint letter last month. Some of the most concerning statistics on learning loss in Virginia come from scores on the PALS assessment — a literacy screening tool used by almost all school districts across the state. Michael Bolling, the state’s assistant superintendent for learning and innovation, told the Virginia Board of Education last Thursday that PALS data showed significantly more kindergarten and first grade students starting the current school year at high risk for reading failure compared to the previous year. Students are largely measured on whether they meet the assessment’s benchmark. In the fall of 2019, only 17.9% of kindergarten students and 18.3% of first graders tested below the benchmark, Bolling said. But in the fall of 2020, 27.2% of kindergarteners and 28.5% of first graders tested below it — a collective jump of roughly 10%. A little more than 55% of those assessments were conducted digitally, but Bolling said state trends were similar across in-person and remote tests. “There were significant increases [in testing below benchmark], especially in students that were Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and English learners,” he told board members. Among White kindergarten students, for example, 13.9% were classified as high risk in the fall of 2019 compared to 21.3% in 2020, a jump of 7.4 percentage points. But the number of Black students testing below the benchmark rose by 8.8 percentage points, compared to 14.2 percentage points for Hispanic students. Educators have warned that remote learning could exacerbate existing achievement gaps between White students and students of color, along with differences along economic lines. But the data also indicate that many parents remain concerned about sending their children back to school. More than 20 local districts reported that at least 20% of their parents opted for remote learning when in-person or hybrid models were also an option. Two districts said more than 75% of families opted for virtual learning. “Our largest divisions, to date, have been predominantly remote,” Lane pointed out. “But I’ll say we’re hearing that in most school divisions, somewhere between 10-30% of parents are choosing remote even when in-person is offered.” Lane said that other academic assessments, such as the educational nonprofit NWEA’s MAP tool, largely showed small gains in reading from third to eighth grade and only minor losses in math. “Essentially, if our SOLs back these results at the end of the year, it gives us some reason for optimism,” he said. “And I think it’s a huge credit to our teachers.” VDOE plans to launch a remediation and recovery workgroup to collaborate with local districts on addressing learning loss among students.
Alexandria City Public Schools students will begin returning to classrooms two days a week on March 2. On Friday, Supt. Gregory Hutchings provided parents, teachers and students with an update on the district’s phased return to in-person classes. Hutchings said pre-K through fifth grade special education students and English language learners will return on March 2. Special education and English language learnings in grades six through 12 will return March 9. All other students who are in pre-k through 12th grades whose parent opted for hybrid learning will return March 16. “We’re continuing to move forward. It has been almost a year since we have closed our doors to our school buildings,” Hutchings said. “It has been an all-hands-on deck approach, literally. And we work — I can’t even tell you how many hours each day — to ensure that these things are coming to fruition. And we’re at a point now where we are getting there. Things are lined up.” ACPS teachers began getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in mid-January. Staff who are will return will begin getting their vaccine on March 1. Teachers are in the process of filling out return-to-school forms, letting school administrators know whether or not they can return to classes based on their coronavirus vaccination status and other factors, Hutchings said in a video message. “This is going to give us an opportunity to know, definitively, what staff members are able to return back into our school buildings. And those that are not able to return back into our school buildings, they will be providing us with documentation by Feb. 16 to validate why they are unable to return.” Teachers aren’t required by law to disclose their coronavirus vaccination information, but Hutchings said the school system has a right to ask and is required to share the information with the Alexandria Health Department. School administrators are asking parents who are able to drive their children to school to do so. “We still do have to follow the CDC guidelines on our buses, and that does limit the amount of students that can fit on the bus — which is causing us to do double routes,” Hutchings said. This week, Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools also announced they would begin returning to in-person learning in March. But Arlington Public Schools Supt. Francisco Durán told parents and board members Thursday that as Arlington County continues to be at the high-risk level of coronavirus transmission, he is not going to set a date for returning to classrooms until Feb. 18. “We’re going to continue, and I’m going to continue, to make the best decisions for the children of Arlington,” Durán said during the meeting. However, after Gov. Ralph Northam announced he wants all school districts to provide in-person options by March 15, Durian said he would make an announcement on Feb. 9.
Gov. Ralph Northam wants schools across Virginia to begin offering in-person learning options beginning next month. In January, the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Health issued guidelines for school districts planning to begin bringing students back to classrooms, focusing on younger students and those who have been most adversely affected by virtual learning. School districts now have until March 15 to begin the process, in whatever form the district decides. The news comes as Virginia races to vaccinate residents and as the pandemic continues to rage with new variants being confirmed in Virginia. But Northam expressed confidence that Virginia schools can reopen safely. “We’ve seen more data now, and it suggests that schools don’t have the kind of rapid spread that we’ve seen in other congregate settings,” Northam said during a press conference Friday, noting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert. The state will provide funding to help implement the safety measures required for schools to reopen safely, Northam said. That money will come from CARES Act funds and directly from the state. Most schools in Northern Virginia have been virtual during the pandemic, but many have recently released plans to return students to classrooms. In Fairfax County Public Schools, the commonwealth’s most populous school district, students will begin returning to school buildings two days a week starting next week. Loudoun County Public Schools also plans to begin a phased reopening next week. Alexandria City Public Schools expects to begin a phased reopening in early March. Meanwhile, Arlington County Public Schools won’t set a date to return to classrooms until Feb. 9. Northam said Friday that virtual learning has had negative social and emotional impacts on children and their academic performance. “My fellow pediatricians say they’re seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues, even increases in substance abuse in their young patients,” he said. “That’s just not a good direction for us to keep going.” Northam, who was a pediatrician for years, also recommended that schools implement changes in structure to catch students up on missed time learning; including summer school or extended school days. Some teachers and teachers’ unions across the commonwealth have expressed concerns over reopening plans, particularly if all teachers and staff are not vaccinated by the time school buildings reopen. While Virginia teachers are now eligible to receive vaccinations under the commonwealth’s Phase 1B of vaccine distribution, the overwhelming demand and small supply has made securing doses difficult. Pressed on health concerns about reopening to hybrid in-person learning in the midst of one of the deadliest parts of the pandemic so far, Northam pointed to Virginia’s childcare centers. Those facilities have remained open during the pandemic but have seen relatively few outbreaks, suggesting school reopenings could be done safely, he said. Northam added that schools across the commonwealth that have opened or partially opened could help provide a roadmap for how to handle the process. Northam said the commonwealth might change its position on school reopening if the pandemic worsens.
The Federal Trade Commission is urging people not to post photos of their COVID-19 vaccination cards on social media. “Please — don’t do that! You could be inviting identify theft,” the agency warned on its website. COVID-19 vaccination cards list your full name, date of birth, where you got the vaccine and when — information that could help a crook guess your Social Security number, open accounts in your name or steal your tax refund. Also, oversharing on social media can help people figure out security questions and PINs. “Want to share the new about your vaccination? How about a photo of a nifty adhesive bandage on the injection site? Or, post a photo of your white or orange vaccine sticker. The stickers are really cool,” the FTC suggested.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan joined Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks for a tour of the new mass vaccination site at Six Flags America on Friday after a new registration portal launched without any public announcement. “The Six Flags site was a key pillar of Maryland’s testing strategy, and will now play a pivotal role in our efforts to safely and efficiently vaccinate thousands of Marylanders,” Hogan said. “As we continue to expand Maryland’s network of vaccination sites, we remain strongly committed to fair and equitable access for communities in every corner of our state.” A mass vaccination site at the Baltimore Convention Center also opened Friday. The new registration portal opened at 8 a.m. and 10,000 appointments were filled within 20 minutes. “We didn’t even hardly tell anybody about it because we wanted to slowly test out the system,” said Hogan. “The bad news is that we filled up all the available slots. But the good news is we scheduled 10,000 slots in the first 20 minutes.” The Six Flags site is being managed by the Maryland Department of Health, the Maryland National Guard and Kaiser Permanente. While the sites offer more capacity, they don’t come with added vaccine doses. Hogan said he is hoping that the federal government’s vaccine allotment to states will increase. As he toured the Six Flags site, Hogan said, “We’re going to add a couple of more … sites next week, and we’re going to continue to grow. The idea eventually is to build an infrastructure that can handle millions of vaccines with thousands of vaccinators all across the state.” He said the concept was like “building an infrastructure machine,” but reiterated that more vaccines are needed from the federal government. Currently, Hogan said 250 vaccinations are being given each day at the Six Flags site. “And then we’re immediately going to 2,000 a day, and then as soon as the supplies pick up, which we’ve been promised by the federal government that they will, we’re going to be able to do 6,000 a day” at Six Flags, Hogan said. Although the new portal serves as a single registration point for the mass vaccination sites, there will not be a state-run single point to register for vaccinations. “What we don’t want is to have one central site that 6 million people are crashing; that doesn’t work,” Hogan said. The current system, where users can apply at pharmacies, hospitals and county health departments, prevents bottlenecks, he said. Many Marylanders have complained that since the state doesn’t have a central website accepting registrations, they spend hours different sites trying to get an appointment for a vaccination for themselves or loved ones.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg thanked frontline bus and rail workers at Union Station on Friday, his first official public event since his swearing-in on Wednesday. Buttigieg took about 20 minutes to greet about a dozen workers on an Amtrak platform before he spoke to the media. He reinforced the Biden administration’s new mandate that masks be worn at all times on public transit, in airports, airplanes and trains, calling it the best way to slow the spread of new COVID-19 variants and save lives. The secretary wore two masks while not speaking. Buttigieg also gave transportation leaders from WMATA, VRE, MARC and Amtrak the assurance that the Biden administration is fully behind coronavirus relief funding for public transit. “[Transit agencies] are being asked to work miracles with the resources they are given in the best of times, and now have faced the enormous challenge of sharp drops in farebox revenue,” Buttigieg said. Metro is facing severe budget and service cuts in 2022 if more federal funding isn’t passed before then. “We’ll build back better than before,” Buttigieg said. “We’ll sustain the basics and go beyond the basics.” The topic of mask enforcement also came up as transit agencies around the country grapple with how to keep both workers and riders safe. Many transit agencies across the country are providing masks and have said they will refuse riders service if they don’t wear a mask while riding to comply with the new mandate. Metro has taken a slightly different stance, with General Manager Paul Wiedefeld saying it isn’t right to put the onus on bus operators and other frontline workers to police masking. Wiedefeld has said having bus drivers enforce the rule would potentially put in them in conflict with riders and create unsafe conditions. He wants Metro Transit Police to be called if a situation arises. Metro drivers have been assaulted for asking riders to pay fares and other reasons. Buttigieg seemed to agree with Widefeld’s position. “We need to support them,” Buttigieg said of frontline employees. “We need to make sure as much as possible that we do not put these employees in the position to ask or to remind [riders to wear masks], though they are prepared to ask or remind when necessary. Let’s make it easier for the people who make it easier to get around this country and get through our day.” Raymond Jackson, president of the ATU Local 689 transit worker union, also spoke with Buttigieg, telling him about the need for more funding for the transit system and about the assaults on regional transit workers. “You just want him to be aware of that,” Jackson said. He said asking bus operators to enforce mandates is a tough position and said it should be up to transit and other police departments to help enforce the policy. “But, if that’s what the President of the United States says we must do, then that’s what we must do,” Jackson said.
Citing ongoing issues with Maryland’s unemployment insurance program that has led to delays and frustration among residents to even make a claim, Democrats in the state General Assembly proposed several reforms. In a joint statement, state leaders, including Senate President Bill Ferguson, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and other Democrats in the Senate and House, said Maryland has been enduring what Ferguson called a “crisis” for the past 10 months linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some highlights of the reform package include offering direct deposit to receive benefits quicker, ensuring enough staff at call centers and providing callers with a better way to leave a callback number. “Legislators and staff of both parties have spent the year trying to get thousands of desperate constituents answers on their UI claims,” Jones said. “We’ve seen the dysfunction up close. We’re going to help unemployed Marylanders right away and chart a new vision for our UI system so we’re prepared for future challenges.” Other changes include relaxing the income threshold to receive benefits while earning some money and help for businesses to handle increasing unemployment insurance costs because of layoffs. But Gov. Larry Hogan previously said major reforms are not necessary. Last month, Hogan said Maryland “is doing better than any other state in the country” and “way ahead of any other state” in meeting unemployment needs. A Hogan spokesman called the Democratic plan “a Band-Aid and not even close to a real and permanent fix.” The spokesperson also said that Maryland “has one of the strongest unemployment systems in the country,” and has been “consistently resolving more than 95% of claims throughout the pandemic and aggressively blocking fraud at every turn.” Hogan’s office said 893,912 claims processed as of Feb. 3. About 754,272 claims have been paid out, according to the governor’s office, with 139,640 denials and 43,694 claims pending. State legislators are also considering Hogan’s $1 billion COVID-19 relief package, with a final vote expected in the Senate today.
D.C. began vaccinating homeless people this week as part of its coronavirus vaccine plan. D.C.’s Department of Human Services is partnering with Unity Health Care, the city’s main provider of medical care to the homeless, to administer the vaccines. At least 23 homeless people in the city have died from the coronavirus and at least 464 have tested positive. DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said Wednesday that vaccinating the homeless would be key to community safety, particularly because the risk of virus transmission is high in congregate settings like shelters. “We’ve been really vigilant, [with] as many safety measures as we can possibly put in place to make sure our programs are safe, but we can’t avoid transmission altogether,” Zeilinger said. On Tuesday, 115 homeless people got the first dose of the vaccine. Zeilinger said the people who received the vaccine were all part of the PEP-V program, which provides hotel rooms to 200 of the most elderly and medically vulnerable homeless to protect them from the coronavirus. Next week, people staying at the city’s congregate shelters will also be offered vaccines. Zeilinger said people staying at the city’s hypothermia locations, the expanded list of shelters available in the winter, will also be prioritized for vaccines. “When you look by-and-large at the demographics of people who experience homelessness in our community, it takes a toll on the body,” said Zeilinger. “People oftentimes are experiencing health complications … and it’s an aging population … they’re at a greater risk.” Zeilinger acknowledged that DHS could not reach out to every homeless person in the city, but said it would focus on people who have some sort of contact with the city system. Some individuals, for example, come into hypothermia shelters on some nights but not others. Zeilinger said the agency was making an effort to make appointment sign-ups available for those people so that they can receive a vaccine. But, “right now, we don’t have the capacity to literally go out to places where there are encampments to do vaccinations.”
Anne Arundel County Public Schools will incrementally bring students back to classrooms in a hybrid learning model form beginning March 1. Elementary students whose parents previously opted for a hybrid learning model will return to classrooms two days per week starting March 1. Students in grades six, nine and 12 will return on March 8 and students in grades seven, eight, 10 and 11 will follow on March 22. Students at development centers and centers of applied technology will return in mid-February. According to Deputy Supt. Maureen McMahon, 39% of elementary students, 36% of middle school students and 34% of high school students chose to return to school buildings. The remainder will continue all-virtual learning. Students whose parents or guardians opted-in for hybrid learning will spend two consecutive days each week in classrooms and the rest learning online. Teachers will teach from classrooms four days a week, with both teachers and students at home on Wednesday so schools can be cleaned and sanitized. Anne Arundel County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman told school board members that a clinic to vaccinate teachers will be available beginning next week.
U.S. Capitol Police personnel will be vaccinated against COVID-19. “Thanks to the efforts of the Congressional Leadership, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the administration, enough doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been secured to vaccinate all USCP personnel,” Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman said. The vaccines will arrive soon, and the department is working on logistics on how to administer them to employees. Last month, CBS News reported that at least 38 members of the Capitol Police and about 150 National Guard members tested positive for COVID-19 since responding to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Urban Athletic Club, a D.C.-based gym with four locations in the city, was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine for multiple violations of COVID-19 health and safety requirements at its 804 N St. NW location in Shaw. The D.C. attorney general filed suit in December, alleging that Urban Athletic allowed customers to exercise without masks and social distancing, and did not properly sanitize equipment. The club also has gyms at the Line Hotel in Adams Morgan, at the Kimpton Glover Park Hotel, and at The Watergate. The lawsuit alleged that on six separate occasions, an OAG investigator observed multiple people at the Shaw location exercising indoors without masks, and employees failing to enforce mask requirements and sanitize equipment between uses, among other violations. “While Urban Athletic Club began complying with health and safety guidelines shortly after we filed suit in December, this settlement holds the company accountable for its previous failures and sends the message that any business that refuses to take legally required steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be held accountable,” Attorney General Karl Racine said in a press release. As part of the settlement, Urban Athletic Club cannot offer indoor group exercise classes or outdoor exercise classes of more than 25 people as long as the current COVID-19 health emergency is in effect. It must pay $5,000 within one week to the city, and another $5,000 within six months. The lawsuit and settlement do not include Urban Athletic Club’s other locations.
At 9 a.m. today, 1,800 vaccine appointments will open to senior citizens and healthcare workers in Wards 5, 7 and 8 in D.C. — a change from earlier “priority ZIP codes” that included residents in wards 1 and 4. Those priority ZIP codes include 20001, 20002, 20011, 20017, 20018, 20019, 20020, 20032, 20422 and 20593. An additional 1,800 appointments will open for residents ages 65 and older or healthcare workers living in any ward. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the change Wednesday afternoon. The focus on certain zip codes began last month, after the city’s initial vaccination rollout to residents ages 65 and older showed geographic and racial disparities. Residents in Ward 3, which has a majority white population and is home to some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, signed up for the most appointments of any ward in the first week of availability with 2,465 appointments. Residents in majority-Black Wards 7 and 8 secured only 197 and 94 vaccine appointments, respectively. In an attempt to correct the inequity, the city moved to open more than 4,000 appointments for residents in Wards 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8. According a press release Wednesday, ZIP codes in wards 5, 7 and 8 were prioritized this week because they have the lowest percentage of residents 65 and older who have received their first dose of the vaccine. As of Jan. 28, only 11.3% of older residents in Ward 8 had received the vaccine, compared to 33.3% in Ward 3. Wards 5, 7 and 8 are also the wards with the most residents who have died from COVID-19, according to D.C. Health data. During a D.C. Council oversight hearing Monday, officials said the priority ZIP codes may change week-to-week, based on available data. Since the city opened its online portal for vaccine booking, appointments have filled up quickly, often within 15 minutes of opening. Many residents have reported problems accessing the online system, and last week D.C. Health quadrupled the number of people answering phones to help residents looking to book appointments. As of Monday, the city had administered 62,219 doses of the vaccine, but D.C. Health is missing race and ethnicity data for hundreds of thousands of vaccinated residents. The health department acknowledged the racial and geographic gaps in vaccine distribution, but officials maintain that supply continues to be the biggest constraint on the city’s vaccine rollout. Last week, the Biden administration announced it would increase D.C.’s vaccine allotment by 15% for the next three weeks.
Montgomery County officials are finalizing a plan to set aside vaccines for minority communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. The county’s “equity framework” is about making sure vaccine doses aren’t distributed in a first-come-first-served free-for-all, officials said during a press conference Wednesday. Beginning next week, the county will prioritize residents 75 and older who live in ZIP codes hardest hit by the virus based on case rates over the past 90 days and death rates since the pandemic began. “Our framework is designed to ensure that vaccines are made available to those who have been most severely impacted, and also to make sure that we are attacking the virus where in the county it is attacking us,” Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said. The county hasn’t released the list of ZIP codes, but Crowel said it would likely be made public next week. However, a map released by the county health department of coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over the 90 days shows infections clustered in certain parts of the county. The priority ZIP codes will also include areas where a combination of case rates and death rates are higher for communities of color, which may not be reflected in overall figures. “Within those top-priority ZIP codes, the county doses will be allocated based on case rate and death rates by race and ethnicity for folks living in the ZIP codes that have been disproportionately impacted,” Crowel said. Remaining doses will be made available to residents across the county. The plan is “not cutting out any of the other ZIP codes, it is just prioritizing our attack and targeting our attack,” Crowel said. He also said the priority ZIP codes will likely change over time, “depending on where the virus is spreading and how quickly we’re able to vaccinate within a particular area.” Montgomery County is not alone in trying to prioritize vaccines for communities hardest hit. D.C. also sets aside vaccine doses for particular ZIP codes. Officials said the point of the equity plan isn’t to pit communities against each other in a competition for vaccines but to ensure equitable access to them. “If it’s a competition, we know who is going to win that competition: People with more digital access, more time to be able to spend on the internet looking for appointments,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “It’s that competition, frankly, that is the thing that we’re trying to avoid by ensuring that we’re targeting not just from a racial equity standpoint, but from a public health standpoint, the areas where the virus is most spreading, and thus, where the vaccinations will have the most degree of protective power to reduce our overall community transmission rates.” The equity plan only applies to doses administered by the county health department. Those doses make up just a fraction of overall vaccine supply in Maryland’s most populous county. This week, the number of vaccine doses distributed to all providers in the county, which includes retail pharmacies and hospitals, totaled 12,275 doses. The Montgomery County Health Department’s share of that was 5,500 doses. “We are encouraging other vaccination providers and the state to adopt an equity framework,” Crowel said. The county is still only vaccinating those 75 and older due to limited supply. Last week, about 11,000 residents 75 and older were vaccinated in Montgomery County through the county and other providers. Overall, the county estimates there are 85,000 county residents in the group At last week’s pace, it will take at least four weeks to get through the bulk of residents 75 and older, Stoddard said. Obviously, if the doses increase, we will go faster,” he said. “If they don’t increase, we will not go faster.” County officials expressed concerns about the increasing doses going to private providers in the county, such as retail pharmacies. County Executive Marc Elrich said he was on a call last week with other county executives, local health officials and state health officials. “Pretty much all of us were asking them not to give any doses to pharmacies, but to continue to send them to the counties, because we have the capacity to put out whatever you’ve got.”
Loudoun County Public Schools will bring preschool through fifth grade students, special education and technical career students, and English language learners whose parents chose hybrid learning, back to classrooms by Feb. 16. Middle and high school students whose parents previously opted for the hybrid model will return to classrooms two days per week by March 3. During a six-hour meeting Tuesday, which included comments from dozens of frustrated parents anxious to have their children return to classrooms with classmates and teachers, the LCPS school board voted to restart in-person learning after a December jump in cases in the county prompted a return to 100% online learning. Parents who prefer to have children continue 100% distance learning can do that under the plan. The decision to restart hybrid learning comes amid the county’s multi-prong efforts to stabilize life for students and their families, while the coronavirus maintains a strong hold. Briefing the board, Interim Supt. Scott Ziegler said that as of last Friday, 8,787 staff members have received their first of two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Ziegler estimated that all staff members who choose to receive the vaccine will have both doses by the mid-March. During previous board meetings, several members as well as teachers urged delaying return to school until teachers were vaccinated. County Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend told the board that after record numbers of new cases in the community one week ago — about 300 per day — new cases the past four days have between 100-120 per day. The positivity rate has been about 15% recently, Goodfriend said. “We’re not seeing large-scale outbreaks. We’re seeing small outbreaks, typically in families scattered throughout the county,” he said. “We expect that 100-plus to continue at least through February.” Goodfriend said that schools following mitigation strategies, including maintaining 6-feet of social distance when possible, mask wearing and hand washing, have not seen significant spread of the coronavirus within buildings. “If that’s the case, then it’s just as safe, if not safer, having students and faculty in the schools as it is having them in the community, outside their homes,” Goodfriend said. The board also voted to add a third metric in evaluating whether conditions are safe for hybrid learning. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health previously recommended making those decisions based on the number of new cases per 100,000 as well as when the testing positivity rate was over 10%. “The emerging school of thought is to also look at your mitigation methods and your transmission rates in school.” In the future, the board will consider the two previous core indicators, as well as how the school is implementing measures proven to reduce spread when making decisions about whether to revert to distance learning or bring more students back to in-person learning.
CVS pharmacies Maryland and Virginia including stores in Bowie, Rockville and Stafford, will begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations starting Feb. 11. In all, some 6,500 pharmacies around the county will begin administering shots as the Biden administration begins shipping vaccines to pharmacies next week, ramping up vaccinations as new and potentially more serious virus strains are reported in the U.S., the White House said Tuesday. Coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said the pharmacies will receive a total of 1 million doses of vaccine. The number of participating pharmacies is expected to grow as drug makers increase production, allowing more doses to be allocated. The pharmacy program will be administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and includes major outlets such as CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid and Costco, as well as supermarket pharmacies. CVS will offer vaccines to eligible groups at 28 pharmacies in Virginia and 18 in Maryland. As part of its plan to eventually offer COVID-19 vaccines at all of its pharmacies nationwide, CVS is starting with 335 pharmacies in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Appointments can be booked online or by calling 800-746-7287 as early as Feb. 9, depending on the stores receiving shipments of vaccines from the federal pharmacy partnership program, according to a statement from CVS. No appointments will be available in stores. Initial shipments will provide 26,000 doses in Virginia and 11,000 in Maryland. Eligibility for the vaccinations will be determined by each state. In Maryland, participating CVS pharmacies are in Baltimore, Bowie, Chester, Frederick, Fulton, Hagerstown, Ocean City and Rockville. Participating CVS Pharmacies in Virginia will include Bedford, Blacksburg, Chesapeake, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Newport News, Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, Stafford and Virginia Beach. As supplies become available, CVS will make vaccines available at nearly 10,000 pharmacies nationwide, with the ability to give 20-25 million shots per month.
A resident of Northwestern Virginia was confirmed to have contracted the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 strain that was first identified in the U.K. The Virginia Department of Health said Wednesday that the person recently returned from an international trip. That makes four cases of the new variant among Virginians; the other three cases are in the Northern Region, which includes the DMV, the department said. The B.1.1.7 variant of the virus is said to be more contagious than others, but does not cause worse symptoms. It is generally considered that current coronavirus vaccines work on the new variant.
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore canceled in-person undergraduate classes Wednesday and today because of what it called a cluster of COVID-19 cases. The cancellation applies to undergraduate in-person classes and activities on the Homewood campus, according to a letter sent to the campus community. The school said some 30 undergraduates out of 6,000 tested positive during screenings Tuesday and Wednesday. Johns Hopkins said a “preliminary investigation the issue is associated with off-campus social gatherings over the weekend. We are taking a quick and proactive approach to this moment, although our numbers are small relative to our total population, out of an abundance of caution and to provide the opportunity to reinforce our communications with undergraduates about COVID safety precautions.” The university said several of the students who tested positive live in Charles Commons and are student athletes. Students who tested positive and live in residence halls were moved to “isolation housing” and others are isolating off campus. During the pause in campus classes and activities, the university will conduct contact tracing, test as many undergraduates as possible and require all students living in Charles Commons, as well as all athletes, to quarantine and be tested. In the letter, university leadership urged all students to wear masks, socially distance, wash hands, report symptoms and avoid large gatherings. “Our peers who operated successfully in-person in the fall have not seen cases of transmission in classrooms, and we have had the same experience in our research labs, but we believe this action is necessary to ensure that we can carry out the rest of the semester safely,” the letter said.
Two Montgomery County residents have contracted the South African COVID-19 variant, which is believed to be more transmissible, after traveling abroad. “Right now, the cases are preliminary positives, and we are awaiting final confirmation from the Maryland Department of Health,” Montgomery County Health and Human Services spokesperson told DC on Heels in an email Tuesday morning. “It appears they are travel related, but we don’t know definitively until we get more information from the Maryland Department of Health (it is the state laboratory doing the analysis).” Later Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan confirmed the diagnosis in a tweet. “State health officials and the CDC have confirmed two additional cases of the B.1.351 (South African) variant in Maryland,” Hogan tweeted. “The two individuals, who recently traveled abroad, reside in Montgomery County. Contact tracing is underway, and close contacts are isolating.” Montgomery County health officials were notified about the cases Monday morning, according to Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, who participated in a virtual press conference with Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker. The B.1.351 variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, has a mutation that is believed to make it more contagious than other variants. Variants have also been discovered in the United Kingdom and Brazil. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work against the South African variant, but are slightly less protective against it. Moderna is working on a booster shot for the variant. Crowel said the two people are “being cared for in a hospital in another jurisdiction.” On Saturday, Hogan announced one B.1.351 case had been diagnosed in a person living in the Baltimore area. That person is recovering at home in isolation and does not require hospitalization. The B.1.351 variant has not been shown to cause more severe illness or increased risk of death when compared to other variants. Maryland also has eight confirmed cases of the UK variant. It is the second state to have a case with the South African variant, following South Carolina, which has two confirmed cases. Across the country, there are 467 reported UK variant cases in 32 states. The only confirmed case of the Brazilian variant in in Minnesota.
The Fairfax County Public Schools board voted unanimously Tuesday to approve Supt. Scott Brabrand’s latest plan to begin bringing back students to classrooms two days a week on Feb 16. All students would be back within a month. The board wasn’t scheduled to vote on the plan until Thursday. But board member Megan McLaughlin, who ran the meeting, put the idea up for a vote because “there is strong support for this timeline,” and the board wanted to get the information to the public as soon as possible. The plan calls for 8,000 career and technical education and special education students to return to classrooms on Feb. 16. About 7,000 pre-K, kindergarten and the remaining special education students would return on Feb. 23, followed by 24,500 students in grades 8, 9 and 12 on March 2, 13,500 students in grades 1-2 and 24,000 students in grades 7, 10 and 11 on March 9 and 27,500 students in grades 3-6 on March 16. Students in intervention cohorts began in-person learning last week. Brabrand said the plan, and the process to re-close school buildings, had been developed in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education. Although board members were supportive, they had concerns. “I can only vote for this plan if … you’re going to keep your foot on the pedal” as far as getting vaccines for teachers and staff, board member Laura Jane Cohen told Brabrand. She added that the administration would need to be more transparent than it had been about the COVID-19 numbers in the district: “I understand. … You have my commitment,” Brabrand said. More than 7,000 teachers have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Jan. 25, according to Assistant Supt. Michelle Boyd, with about 90% of district teachers signed up to be vaccinated. Brabrand said the Fairfax County Health Department and Inova Health “have promised they’re going to see us through” as far as providing vaccines. But Boyd noted vaccines are not a requirement by the health department to return to in-school learning. “Our planning never had the vaccination timeline in it,” Brabrand added. Deputy Supt. Frances Ivey said district and county administrators would review the latest numbers and other information from schools daily. “This is not a perfect plan,” Brabrand said, adding that no such thing exists in the middle of a pandemic. “But being able to unify around this plan does send a strong message to our community and to our staff.”
Montgomery County may soon resume indoor dining following a decline in coronavirus cases, but officials still don’t think it is a safe option. County Executive Marc Elrich sent a draft executive order to the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday to allow indoor dining at 25% capacity beginning Feb. 9. If approved by the council, the county would become the last jurisdiction in the state to allow indoor dining again. An attorney for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the indoor dining ban, said a hearing is scheduled next week before Montgomery County Circuit Judge James Bonifant. Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Management, hinted at the move in an appearance before the council earlier Tuesday morning. The proposal to reopen indoor dining is an about-face for the county, which has defended its indoor dining ban as neighboring jurisdictions, such as Prince George’s County and D.C., have lifted similar bans. Speaking to the council Tuesday morning, Stoddard suggested the decision was about balancing the needs of public health and the economic impact of the ban but added he still doesn’t feel that eating indoors is safe. “Just because something is permitted does not mean it’s a good idea,” Stoddard told council members. Any activity inside where you cannot wear a face mask and are around others not from your household for an extended period of time is not safe from a public health perspective, Stoddard said, adding, “My family won’t be participating” in indoor dining even if it is approved. The county council paused indoor dining on Dec. 15 amid a rise and before a holiday surge in coronavirus cases. Recently, the number of new cases per 100,000 residents has declined by almost half from 49.8 on Jan. 12 to 26.7 as of Tuesday, according to data on the county’s coronavirus dashboard. The test positivity rate has also declined more modestly. At-Large Council member Will Jawando said he doesn’t think restarting indoor dining makes sense even with improving numbers. “I feel like I’m in The Twilight Zone,” he said. “If I went around and asked everyone on the call — my colleagues and I — I would hope and I think we would all say we’re not doing indoor dining because it’s not safe.” Jawando said he won’t support the measure lifting the indoor dining ban when it formally comes before the council. “It just seems totally backwards that we would say, we’ve made a couple of weeks of progress, and we’re going to open indoor dining,” he said.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously approved temporary legislation that requires third-party food delivery apps to sign an agreement with restaurants before offering food from the restaurants during the ongoing health emergency. The bill, introduced by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, aims to benefit restaurants that have lost business during the pandemic. Restaurant owners have complained for months that delivery companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats are listing their menus without permission, allowing customers to order from inaccurate or out-of-date menus. When restaurants cancel orders placed through the apps, customers blame the business, owners say. Non-partner listings have become central to the business model of some food delivery apps. Delivery providers don’t make money from non-partner restaurants, but create the appearance of offering a bounty of dining options, which could entice more users. Customers may begin ordering through apps rather than directly from a restaurant, which tech companies then use to pressure a restaurant into signing up for their services. When Grubhub doubled the number of restaurants listed on its app in 2019, about 10% were official partners, the company told shareholders. Grubhub later said it stopped adding merchants without permission. Postmates, which is owned by Uber, said in a regulatory filing last fall that it had 700,000 businesses, but just 115,000 were official partners, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some apps have even begun to swipe web traffic from restaurant websites. D.C.’s new law goes into effect March 10 and will remain in effect for 225 days, but McDuffie said he is considering introducing permanent legislation.
Arlington County is vaccinating about 540 residents per day with the COVID-19 vaccine, with hopes that supplies open up. If not, it will take well over a year to get Arlington’s 240,000 residents vaccinated. Last week, County Manager Mark Schwartz updated the County Board on the vaccination effort, which was thrown into chaos when the Northam administration changed vaccine distribution and stopped shipments to hospitals, which had been administering vaccine in conjunction with local health departments. Both Virginia Hospital Center and Inova Health System were forced to halt their vaccination effort, at least temporarily, and the Arlington and Fairfax county governments are now attempting to contact people who had signed up for vaccines through the hospitals to schedule new appointments. The hospitals may be brought back into the vaccination effort once enough doses are available for more widespread distribution. The Arlington County government is currently conducting vaccination clinics on weekdays, although it has held vaccination events such as a weekend teacher-vaccination clinic and is prepared to extend its schedule based on availability, officials said. The rocky rollout has brought out a degree of community discontent. “It’s been a disaster – the story changes every day,” said Sue Arnold, a veteran activist with the Arlington County Republican Committee and one of the people waiting for a new vaccination date. However, others were more upbeat. Another resident received a new appointment for this week — earlier than her original Virginia Hospital Center appointment — and praised the county government for its effort to respond to the situation. “I’m impressed,” said the former county employee. “I think it’s remarkable these guys have been able to turn this around as fast as they did.” The county is currently vaccinating resides 75 and older; frontline healthcare workers; police, fire and other public-safety personnel; correctional facility employees and inmates; people living in homeless shelters; teachers and some school staff; and childcare workers. The next groups to be vaccinated, who may now pre-register with the county health department, include residents ages 65-74; residents ages 18-64 with specific underlying health conditions; grocery-store personnel and others in the food industry, including agricultural workers; public-transit employees; mail carriers; and county employees for “continuity of government.” County officials say they are still awaiting guidance on defining that term. Many vaccines are being given at the Syphax Center, near Washington Boulevard adjacent to the county health department offices. The county received $2.28 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support its vaccination effort. Unlike most FEMA funding, the money will come to the county in advance, based on expected costs of rolling out the vaccination program, rather than requiring the county to front the money and then seek reimbursement.
In an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus, the National Park Service now requires employees and visitors to wear masks at all park service buildings and facilities. Masks are mandatory inside historic homes and other buildings managed by the park service, including the monuments and memorial on the National Mall, NPS announced Tuesday. Masks are also required on NPS-managed lands when physical distancing cannot be maintained, including on narrow or busy trails, overlooks and historic homes. “Wearing a mask around others, physical distancing and washing your hands are the simplest and most effective public health measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Capt. Sara Newman, director of the park service’s Office of Public Health. “Getting outside and enjoying our public lands is essential to improving mental and physical health, but we all need to work together to recreate responsibly.” The move comes after President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring masks at all federal lands and buildings. Additional public health measures are in place at many parks, ranging from capacity limits to one-way trails and even temporary closures due to local outbreaks. Visitors should check park websites for details before visiting.
D.C. Health on Monday finally released data on the race and ethnicity of people who have gotten the coronavirus vaccine, but 20% of those records don’t have any race listed. “No conclusions can be drawn by this race and ethnicity data,” D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said during a press conference Monday. She said bad data input is plaguing the city’s attempt to track the race and ethnicity of those who have be vaccinated. Healthcare providers have not been inputting race or ethnicity data for tens of thousands of people, Nesbitt said. The health department is working with those administering the vaccine to make the data more complete going forward. As of Monday, D.C. has distributed 62,219 doses of the vaccine, accounting for 74.8% of the city’s supply. Records for nearly 1 in 5 people don’t contain race data. Nearly 3 in 5 recipients’ records don’t specify ethnicity. Reporters have been asking for the information, and Nesbitt did so although she didn’t think it was complete enough to offer good answers. Race breakdown for people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine include 23,551 other, 17,520 white, 11,380 missing data and 9,967 Black. Nestbitt said the race and ethnicity data should not be added together as one person has both a race and ethnicity. It is unclear why providers did not complete ethnicity data as much as race data. There were 35,965 records missing ethnicity data, 25,463 non-Hispanics and 1,625 Hispanics. The data comes from the city’s immunization system where healthcare providers report an individual’s age, gender, address, race and ethnicity. “If healthcare providers do not collect information on race and ethnicity … that data cannot be analyzed and provided to the public,” Nesbitt said. “And that data, more importantly, cannot help to drive the district’s plan for a safe, effective and equitable immunization program.” Asked about the number of Hispanic residents getting vaccinated, Nesbitt said, “I would make any inference from that at all. At all. There’s so much data missing. I have no interpretation to make from that,” she said. “I will tell you is that we are already focused on Black and brown communities because we need to focus on Black and brown communities.” Black and brown communities have been hit hardest by the coronavirus, but those same communities are more reluctant to get the vaccine, Nesbitt said. Black Americans have been subject to unethical medical studies, which has led to a lack of trust in health systems. We have “a bridge that we need to cross in terms of addressing vaccine confidence,” Nesbitt said. “So when you look at healthcare workers, you have Black and brown people who are saying, ‘I want to see what happens to the first cohort of people,’ even though the first cohort of people are the folks who participated in the clinical trials. … I’m constantly reminding people we are in week eight of implementation of the program now.” Some residents are also concerned about inequities in vaccine distribution. Appointments for eligible residents, including healthcare workers and those 65 and older, fill up quickly, sometimes within minutes after signup opens. Last month, D.C. Health added more than 4,000 new vaccine appointments reserved for residents in wards 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8, which saw the fewest sign-ups. Others say technological challenges are keeping some residents from accessing appointments. But the real solution, Nesbitt said, is getting more vaccines for D.C. “We don’t have enough vaccine,” she said.
Two Montgomery County officials are standing by the county’s ban on indoor dining. County Council President Tom Hucker said Monday that everyone wants indoor dining to resume at county restaurants. “We all miss it,” he said. But Hucker said he still backed the ban that began Dec. 10. “According to the data, since we closed indoor dining in Montgomery County, our cases associated with the restaurant workers still on their jobs are down 60%.” Hucker spoke during a Zoom press conference with Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. Hucker and Crowel both said county health officials are reexamining the issue. “How do we balance between the need for businesses to be open and for people to have an opportunity to engage in socially appropriate and socially distant activities and recreation, and keep these numbers going in the right direction?” Crowel asked. Hucker added that the county has seen recent progress in the containing the spread of COVID-19. “Following the peak in cases over the holiday season, Montgomery County is seeing this week the lowest seven-day average for cases since early December,” he said. “The last two months have been the deadliest, and the average is still higher than in any week of the spring, summer or fall of 2020.” Hucker said an average of 32 of every 100,000 county residents are testing positive for COVID-19, and total cases as of Sunday were nearly 59,000, with 1,260 deaths so far. The Restaurant Association of Maryland last week called on the county to lift its ban on indoor dining.
D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt warned Washingtonians Monday to be on guard for a scam offering to privately sell a vaccine dose. Vaccines and vaccine providers have to be vetted and approved by the health department. “The only places you can get a vaccine are through hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and doctor’s offices and authorized on-site clinics by an enrolled and approved provider,” Nesbitt said. “There are no off-site sales of vaccines. No one will have to purchase a vaccine for price and have it administered by anyone who considers themselves a healthcare provider or otherwise.” She urged people who have seen the scam or who have been contacted and offered to purchase a vaccine to call the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department at 202-727-4159. “We want to ensure that all of our residents have equitable access to vaccines in the District of Columbia. And we like to have all scams reported,” Nesbitt said.
The Maryland Department of Health will open mass vaccination sites at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County and the Baltimore Convention Center on Friday. Gov. Larry Hogan announced the openings in a press release Monday. They are the first of six mass vaccination sites planned in the state. “Announcements will be made as appointments become available,” the statement said. “While federal guidelines make 2 million Marylanders eligible, the state is only receiving 10,000 doses per day,” the press release noted. More than 544,369 vaccine doses have been administered and 78% of all first doses have been given out. The state is in Phase 1C of the vaccine rollout.
Maryland’s Acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader told a panel of state lawmakers Monday that the state is instructing local health officials to reserve COVID-19 vaccine doses so that supplies are available to administer the second dose to complete the immunization process. “That is true. Absolutely,” Schrader said during the second meeting of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup. It was one of a flurry of questions from lawmakers, who sounded confused and frustrated with the overall process and data presented during the virtual meeting. “It doesn’t sound very organized to me,” said state Sen. Ronald Young of Frederick County. “It is,” Schrader agreed in response. Young challenged why Maryland was opening a half-dozen mass vaccination sites while people were still registering for appointments and local health departments “don’t know what’s going on within their county. You’re going to open mass sites when all the other places aren’t getting enough vaccines?” Young asked. “What is to be gained by that?” On the matter of preserving allocated doses, Schrader cited the National Institutes of Health as an example of how “they’re trying to be very disciplined.” Schrader said NIH recently requested COVID-19 vaccine doses from the state. “And then they went ahead and used all the second doses as first doses and then ran out, and called us and said, ‘Hey, we need another 5,000 doses,” he said. Hours earlier, President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team said it wasn’t necessary to hold back received doses. Schrader said the “angst” state officials are experiencing about second doses for healthcare workers is likely due to the transition between administrations on the federal level. But a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said federal officials are working closely with Maryland health officials to clarify any misunderstanding. Schrader said Maryland is expecting to receive a consistent 88,000 vaccine doses for the next three weeks and added that with Johnson and Johnson’s upcoming vaccine and a national retail pharmacy distribution plan, the tide will turn. “The demand still exceeds the supply, but we’re inching up,” Schrader said. “I expect, over the next three or four weeks, we’ll start to see some equilibrium there.”
D.C. Public Schools was ready to welcome about 9,000 students back into classrooms today after an arbitrator ruled Saturday night that the school district met most safety criteria to reopen for in-person learning, but Mother Nature threw a wrench in the plans. Because of the snow that fell Sunday and more expected today, students are learning virtually and are expected back in buildings Tuesday. In finding the Washington Teachers’ Union failed to prove many of the violations it alleged in a complaint about the school district, the decision cleared the way for DCPS to start returning students to classrooms, DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in a statement. It will mark the largest return to in-person learning in D.C. since the coronavirus shuttered school building nearly a year ago. “We were ready to reopen before the Washington Teachers’ Union made this last-minute failed attempt to delay the expansion of in-person learning,” Ferebee said. “The science is clear. Schools are safe, and we know the best place for students to learn is in the classroom.” WTU spokesperson Joe Weedon said in an email that the arbitrator, Elliot H. Shaller, determined two schools could not reopen yet. Calvin Coolidge High School in Takoma and Watkins Elementary School on Capitol Hill cannot bring students back until demonstrating the buildings are safe to reopen in walkthroughs with school community members. DCPS must also give WTU data indicating the number of students who are learning in person at each campus, information the union says it needs to determine how much staffing is needed. “Those are not insignificant wins,” Weedon said. The union, which represents more than 5,000 teachers, alleged DCPS violated an agreement the two sides reached over reopening schools. WTU President Elizabeth Davis previously said the district failed to share data it promised, including information about staffing and building updates needed for reopening. She also argued some school buildings that are scheduled to bring students back for in-person instruction have not met safety criteria to do so. Under the agreement reached between the union and school district in December, both sides can ask the American Arbitration Association to settle disputes that arise from the agreement. Davis notified Ferebee by email on Jan. 19 that the union was seeking a ruling from an arbitrator. In the email, she said schools that are scheduled to reopen have not met all the requirements on a “readiness checklist” that was negotiated between the two sides. Each school must complete all the tasks on the checklist, which includes requirements for HVAC upgrades, personal protective equipment and cleaning procedures, before reopening, according to the agreement. DCPS must also conduct building walkthroughs with community members at each campus to show it has met the requirements on the checklist. “We do not want any of the schools that did not pass a readiness list to open,” Davis said in an interview last week. “This is about safety, and it’s also about transparency and trust.” At a hearing late last week, the union charged the school district violated safety mandates at a dozen schools. Shaller found DCPS satisfied the requirements at all but two, Coolidge and Watkins, where school staff said they were not allowed to visit some areas of the schools in building walkthroughs. The school district must complete those walkthroughs within seven days. Shaller also determined DCPS met requirements for updating ventilation systems and for staffing nurses at each school that reopens. DCPS said about 4,200 staff across the city are slated to work in person during the third quarter, including about 2,200 teachers. In-person instruction will look different in each classroom. Some elementary school students will receive face-to-face instruction four days a week from the same teacher. Others will learn from two different teachers on different days. And the rest will attend in-person classes twice a week, learning virtually the rest of the time. The effort to reopen schools has been met with resistance for months from teachers, who worry about contracting COVID-19 at work and who do not trust district officials will provide the resources to keep workers safe. Plans to welcome thousands of DCPS students back at the start of the second quarter in November were halted after the WTU lodged a complaint with the D.C. Public Employees Relations Board. The board, which mediates labor disputes between government workers and the city, ruled the school district violated city law by failing to collectively bargain with the union. DCPS and WTU returned to the bargaining table after the ruling, producing the December reopening agreement. The treaty allows DCPS to mandate teachers return in-person, a stipulation that was a sticking point in earlier negotiations. At the time, Davis said many teachers were worried they would be required to return to classrooms. But she said she decided to move forward with the agreement to secure other protections, including building safety protocols and personal protective equipment for educators.
The winter storm that dropped snow across the DMV also closed a number of area COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. Several COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites will be closed today and may be shuttered Tuesday due to winter weather conditions. Those planning to get tested or vaccinated today or Tuesday should contact their provider to verify operating hours and procedures. The Maryland Department of Health said its state-operated testing sites in Annapolis and at the Baltimore Convention Center will be closed today. It said Six Flags America in Prince George’s County is no longer a COVID-19 testing site and is set to open this week as a vaccination site. Anne Arundel County canceled vaccine clinics for today. The county’s no-appointment testing sites will operate on a “first come, first served” basis while test kits are available. Arlington County closed its two kiosk-based testing sites at Aurora Hills Community Center and Barcroft Park today along with its drive-through test site and walk-up testing site. The Fairfax County Health Department said those who have a morning appointment today but are concerned about traveling can reschedule. In Loudoun County, the COVID-19 call center is closed today and the county’s vaccination clinic has been canceled. Those with appointments will be contacted to reschedule. A testing clinic scheduled for Tuesday has been canceled. Montgomery County did not have any first doses scheduled for today or Tuesday but canceled the 1,000 second-dose appointments today and has rescheduled them for Tuesday or Wednesday. The Prince George’s County canceled vaccine appointments at its clinics today. Those with appointments will receive an email with instruction on how to reschedule for Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The Prince William Health District canceled appointments today at Beacon Hall on the Manassas campus of George Mason University and Potomac Middle School. Appointments will be rescheduled via email.
About 2,400 Prince William County Public Schools employees received COVID-19 vaccines over the weekend at Unity Reed High School in Manassas. The mass vaccination event drew a visit from Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife. “We needed to thank everybody here,” Northam said. “Novant [UVA] Health Systems is here and made this work today. We’re going to keep working on this to ensure that all Virginians have the opportunity get vaccinated by at least early to mid-summer.” School Board Chair Babur Lateef called it the state’s first vaccine clinic exclusively for school staff, and plans are in the works to keep the events going. “We’ve got to finish out the rest of the month and knock out more of these clinics,” Lateef said. “You’ll see some at the Kelly Building in the eastern part of the county and at Potomac Middle School. We want to get all our teachers vaccinated so we can get schools open.” He said the school system is also working with Prince William County Health District to “get the rest of our community vaccinated.” PWCS Supt. Steve Walts estimated about 3,200 of the district’s nearly 12,000 employees would have received first doses by the end of the weekend. School staff vaccinations were scheduled to begin last week but Inova Fairfax Hospital announced on Jan. 22 that it was canceling all appointments for first doses due to a supply shortage. Instead, school board members and county supervisors worked to find faster solutions. Novant Health UVA is now administering the vaccines with another 1,800 doses scheduled for Feb. 6, and second rounds planned for Feb. 21-28. “We certainly want our children back in schools. I’ve spoken to a number of teachers here today, and they want our children back,” Northam said. “It’s been a very tough year for our children and their families. One of those steps to move forward is to make sure we do it safely and responsibly, and it’s important to have our teachers vaccinated.”
COVID-19 cases could peak in Virginia in the next three weeks, according to the latest update from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute. The institute, which provides weekly models, forecasts that new cases will most likely peak at 46,000 a week (about 6,500 a day) in the week ending Feb. 21. The institute’s updated forecast takes into account the effects of vaccinations, along with growth in new, more contagious variants. Under the worst-case scenario, in which the new strains become dominant before vaccines can have much effect, cases would peak in early March at 57,000 per week, or about 8,000 per day. Virginia’s statewide seven-day average of new cases was as high as 6,166.3 on Jan. 18 but has fallen since and stood at 4,618.9 as of Sunday. The model noted that nationwide, COVID-19 cases have been declining since peaking at about 300,000 a day in early January. As of Jan. 28, the institute said, Virginia averaged 57 daily cases per 100,000 residents over the prior week, ranking 12th among U.S. states. It noted, however, that Virginia’s peak incidence rate to date was less than half of the peaks experienced in the Dakotas, which had the highest rates per 100,000 residents. Virginia also has the eighth lowest total of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents. “Despite some inroads and short-term surges, Virginia’s metro areas have avoided some of the exceptionally high incidence rates seen elsewhere so far,” the report said. “If this persists, cases may plateau and decline in Virginia. However, if large metro areas experience the higher rates seen elsewhere, whether due to pandemic fatigue, new variants or both, Virginia could see current high rates persist or increase into the spring.” Hospitalizations for treatment of COVID-19 in Virginia have continued to fall in recent days and are now down by nearly 700 patients, or 22%, from the high reached on Jan. 13. As of Sunday, 2,516 patients were hospitalized with the virus, the fewest since Dec. 27. And the number of those being treated in intensive-care units fell below 500, to 495, for the first time since Dec. 19. The story was even better in Northern Virginia, where 466 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment as of Sunday. That is the lowest level since Nov. 30. The Virginia Department of Health reported 2,558 new cases statewide Sunday, following 4,309 on Saturday. However, it said Sunday’s number was likely depressed due to a system upgrade and that Monday’s number could be higher than otherwise would be expected as a result. Virginia surpassed 500,000 total coronavirus cases with Saturday’s report, taking just 19 days — the shortest period yet — to add the newest 100,000 cases. In Northern Virginia, 544 new cases were reported Sunday, following 1,177 on Saturday. The region’s seven-day average was 1,166.6, down from peak of 1,628.4 set Jan. 18. The state reported 70 new deaths related to coronavirus on Saturday, ending the second worst week since the pandemic began, with 370 in total. That was just three fewer than were reported the prior week. Death reports tend to lag behind other indicators, however, due to the time required to process and verify death certificates. In Northern Virginia, 10 new deaths were reported Saturday and none Sunday. Of Saturday’s deaths, five were in Prince William County, two apiece in Loudoun and Fairfax counties and one in Arlington County. Average positivity rates both statewide and in Northern Virginia remain below the peaks reached in early January, with the Fairfax health district now joining Arlington County and Alexandria below the key 10% positivity threshold.
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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.