Students, Parents Protest Slow MCPS Return
COVID-19 Cases Reach 976,914 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Saturday morning, 39,553 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 994 deaths; there have been 375,737 cases in Maryland with 7,515 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 561,812 cases with 7,197 deaths. Social distancing is recommended to help control its spread. You can read last week’s updates here.
Despite freezing temperatures Saturday, students and parents protested Montgomery County Public Schools’ plan to bring students back to classrooms in phases. Wearing parkas, wool caps and face masks, the crowd stood along Md. Route 355 in front of the county’s Board of Education headquarters holding colorful handwritten signs. Some of the signs argued against the prolonged plan back to in-person learning, stating: “Teachers Not Screens,” “All Kids Back in March” and “Classroom Not Zoomroom.” Under the plan approved by the school board on Feb. 9, special education and career and technical education students will begin returning March 1. But under the plan, students in grades 7-11 won’t return until late April. “I definitely think that they should open back up the schools a little quicker than this because it’s been almost a year now that we’ve been out of school, and it’s not ok,” Hazel Staake, a fourth grader from Pine Crest Elementary School, told WTOP. “They have to let us back in school.” Staake, along with other students, described being very frustrated and dissatisfied with remote learning. “I really want to be in school and be able to play with my friends and be able to see the teacher without her glitching out a lot,” she said. The school board said its strategy is a safe plan for in-person learning during the pandemic. However, parents and students at the protest said the county is among the most sluggish in the state to return to in-person instruction, keeping some kids away from classrooms weeks to a month longer than children in other districts. “We think that MCPS can speed up their return-to-school schedule,” Kevin Doherty, who has children in fifth and third grade, told the radio station. “Right now, their plan has kids not going back til April, or for even some grades the end of April, more than two months from now, and those kids deserve better,” Doherty said. “Any kid that wants to be back in school in March should be able to be back in school in March.”
The University of Maryland has canceled in-person classes for at least one week and has ordered students living on campus to sequester in place after a surge in COVID-19 cases. “Effective today, the University of Maryland is implementing urgent interventions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus,” said university President Darryll J. Pines in a letter to the campus community Saturday. As of noon Saturday, all students living in residence halls and on-campus fraternity and sorority houses must “sequester-in-place.” Students living off-campus in the College Park area are strongly encouraged to stay home and to limit activities. All undergraduate and graduate in-person classes will be held online beginning Monday. Approved laboratory research, which is already at 50% capacity, can continue with strict mask and social distancing precautions, Pines said. The measures will be in effect at least through Feb. 27, according to the letter. These measures follow a rise in COVID-19 cases at the university. “… We have experienced a further increase in such cases,” Pines wrote. “Following this increase, these actions were recommended by university health officials and the Campus Infectious Disease Management Executive Committee.” Under the sequester-in-place order, students living in residence halls must stay in their residence halls and rooms as much as possible. They must get a coronavirus test at least twice a month, the Stamp Student Union will be open only for COVID-19 testing and grab-and-go food, RecWell facilities are closed and students may go outside to get fresh air only in the area immediately surrounding their residence hall and to pick up food from dining halls, Pines wrote. Only student employees working in Resident Life, residential facilities, dining services and testing in Stamp are permitted to report to work, Pines said. Wicomico Hall was opened to add isolation capacity for positive students and additional space will open as needed.
Six Flags America in Prince George’s County opens for its 22nd season on March 6, month after it opened as a COVID-19 mass vaccination site. But the vaccinations won’t affect park operations because the vaccine is administered in a parking lot west of the park off Central Avenue. “It’s just an overflow parking lot, and the great thing about it is it has its own street access,” said Six Flags spokesperson Joe Pudlick. “There’s plenty of signage out there to direct folks directly to the vaccination site, but there will be some additional signage added to direct people specifically to the theme park as well.” March 6 will be the earliest opening ever for the park. “We know that people are ready to get out and have fun,” Pudlick said. Last year, Six Flags developed protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and Pudlick said they were successful. “We’ve proven that we can open safely, and our guests know that, and we’re excited to welcome them back for 2021.” The safety measures put in place last year will return this year. They include a mask requirement, temperature checks for guests and employees, contactless security screenings and a dedicated “clean team” that constantly sanitizes rides. Because the park is permitted to operate at only 40% capacity and people are asked to maintain social distancing guidelines, visitors will be required to make reservations. The park will be open on weekends from March 6-28, and daily from March 31-April 5 for spring break. The Harley Quinn Spinsanity, which was originally scheduled to open last year, will open in late spring. The theme park held a virtual hiring event Saturday looking to fill about 1,500 seasonal jobs. Additional information on the jobs with Six Flags can be found on its website. “It’s our longest season ever, so you could have employment here at the park from March through January 2022,” Pudlick said.
More than 1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been given to Marylanders. Gov. Larry Hogan announced the milestone on Friday. The 1 million figure includes first and second doses of the vaccines. Of the 2.1 million Marylanders eligible for the vaccine in the current phase of the state’s rollout, 749,765 have received at least one dose, according to the state’s vaccination dashboard. “Even with this good news, this will continue to be a long process for many more months before enough vaccines will be available,” Hogan said in a press release. But, he urged people to be patient, saying that he won’t rest until vaccine doses are available for every Marylander who wants it. “Soon we are opening another mass vaccination site at M&T Bank Stadium, and in the coming weeks, we expect the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — which is being made right here in the state of Maryland — to become available,” Hogan said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could be authorized when a Food and Drug Administration panel meets next week, requires only a single shot instead of two. Maryland is averaging 27,796 shots a day; that is only a fraction of the 50,000-100,000 the state is prepared to administer each day. Already, Maryland is administering 93.4% of first doses it receives from the federal government. Virginia has administered more than 1.5 million shots to more than 1 million people, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard. D.C. has administered 127,535 doses to 87,331 people, according to its vaccination dashboard.
The majority of Arlington Public Schools students will return to classrooms in March. For the last few months, small groups of students, generally those with disabilities, have been attending in-person classes. Earlier this month, some career and technical education students returned to the classroom too. “At this point we are moving forward with confidence in our mitigation measures and our ability to implement them,” APS Supt. Francisco Duran told the school board Thursday. “With that in place, with the resources we put in place, the planning we’ve done over several months, we do believe this is the time we can … begin to return our students in place.” That will begin the week of March 2. Students in prekindergarten through second-grade, as well as all elementary special education students, will start returning to classrooms. The week of March 9, students in grades 3-5, along with grades 6 and 9, and all secondary special education students will begin returning. Finally, students in grades 7, 8 and 10-12 will start returning March 16. “Our countywide [special education] program students will meet four days a week,” Duran said. “Our other students will meet two days a week, either Tuesday-Wednesday or Thursday-Friday.” That means teachers will be teaching half their classes virtually and the other half in-person, and that comes with a new set of complications and potential pitfalls. Duran acknowledged teachers will need more training and support in executing the concurrent learning model the county will be using, on top of what they have already been provided. “We know that’s not enough. We know we need to continue to support staff in that,” he said. But Duran said planning for the return of students took all of that in mind, including the prioritization of which student cohorts will be in the building based on the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reopening guidance. “This has been a long process of planning and preparation by many departments and employees,” Duran said. He repeatedly stressed that the guidance from the VDH and the CDC are being adhered to closely. “This really involves looking at, holistically, the implementation of mitigation strategies, our readiness and our capacity at the building level to do that, any indication of virus spread among those supporting in-person,” Duran added. Students and employees will also take part in a pre-screening each morning. The county will send out emails or text messages every day at 5:30 a.m., including weekends, and everyone will have to report any coronavirus symptoms. Responses will be required each day a child is involved in an in-person or virtual activity. That means if a student isn’t doing any school activity on the weekends, they wouldn’t have to fill out the form. Otherwise, it is expected that they will answer the screening questions. The return to the classroom begins even though not all teachers and staff have been vaccinated. But full vaccination “is clearly not what we’ve heard from the guidance from CDC or VDH,” Duran said. “Not a prerequisite for opening schools, but we are certainly going to make sure we do everything we can to make sure our staff gets access to vaccines that want them.”
As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine, some report that they developed symptoms after the second dose that they didn’t experience after the first shot. “It’s very variable. It’s hard for me to say who is going to get those side effects, and if they’re going to be more profound after that first or second dose,” said Dr. Wilbur Chen of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “But, the chances are after the second dose is worse than the first dose.” Chen is chief of the Adult Clinical Studies section in the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health and is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Committee on Immunization Practices. He said compared to people who are older, those younger than 65, who have more robust immune systems, might respond to the vaccine with more severe symptoms. “They feel like they’re very achy, feverish, have a sore throat or a headache, and it might be severe enough that they want to call out sick from work for a day or two,” Chen said. If symptoms do develop, they usually show up within a few hours after vaccination and typically won’t last longer than two days. They can be treated with over the counter medicine, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen. Chen said people shouldn’t self-medicate in anticipation of something that may not happen, which aligns with guidance from the CDC. “It is not recommended you take these medicines before vaccination for the purpose of trying to prevent side effects because it is not known how these medications may impact how well the vaccine works,” the CDC warns.
After a bill was signed into law Monday giving low-income Marylanders and families some much needed help, the state has processed 98% of the stimulus payments. Gov. Larry Hogan signed the RELIEF Act into law Monday, which would give low-income taxpayers who filed for the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2019 direct stimulus payments of $500 for families and $300 for individuals. More than 422,000 Marylanders are eligible to receive the funds. State Comptroller Peter Franchot said Friday that 98% of payments have been processed. “This has been a herculean effort by our staff who diligently prepared for weeks to get almost all RELIEF Act funds quickly distributed to Marylanders who need it most, despite this week’s weather,” Franchot said. The state transmitted 266,985 electronic payments worth $113.6 million to banks for deposit into individuals’ accounts and 148,972 paper checks totaling $61.7 million have also been processed, according to a press release from Franchot’s office. The RELIEF Act Stimulus website received 450,000 visits in the last four days, and staff responded to hundreds of social media inquiries. The dedicated hotline also got some 14,000 phone calls, and staff answered some 4,400 emails. In addition, the comptroller’s office has processed nearly 160,000 tax returns and issued $17 million in refunds since Feb. 12. More than 3.2 million individual returns are processed annually. In a related matter, the Maryland Senate voted 32-15 Friday to extend a state tax credit for low-income workers to include immigrants, including those in the country illegally, as part of pandemic relief. It now goes to the House. It is a follow-up to the RELIEF Act that steers more than $1 billion to residents. The measure sparked vigorous debate because it extends the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to people who use individual taxpayer identification numbers rather than Social Security numbers. That would include immigrants living in the country illegally who were left out of the initial relief bill.
Starting March 1, D.C. residents between the ages of 16 and 64 who have certain medical conditions, will be eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine. D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt announced the move to the city’s Phase 1C Tier 1 of its vaccination plan during a press conference Thursday. Residents will be asked to “self-attest” to those medical conditions when they register for appointments with D.C. Health or other medical providers, which means they won’t need to have documentation from a healthcare provider in order to register. Nesbitt said the health department came up with the list of 20 qualifying medical conditions after a literature review, consulting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and meeting with its scientific advisory committee. She estimated that 160,000 residents would be eligible because of their medical conditions, although that number could include seniors and other essential workers who have already been vaccinated. Nesbitt also said there will be no prioritization within the category of eligible residents based on their age or which medical conditions they have. All people in the eligible categories will become eligible at the same time. “It is for individuals 16 to 64, and it is for all of the qualifying medical conditions as written,” Nesbitt said. Residents with the following medical conditions will be eligible to receive the vaccine on March 1: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other chronic lung disease; bone marrow and solid organ transplantation; cancer, cerebrovascular disease; chronic kidney disease; congenital heart disease; diabetes mellitus; heart conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies; HIV; hypertension; immunocompromised state; inherited metabolic disorders; intellectual and developmental disabilities; liver disease; neurologic conditions; obesity with a BMI more than 30; pregnancy; severe genetic disorders; sickle cell disease; and thalassemia. Originally the city planned to include smokers and people with a BMI greater than 25. More than half of adults in D.C. would have qualified, which led some experts to question whether city’s vaccine program would be able to handle such an influx of eligible residents. Nesbitt said including people with a BMI greater than 30 would still help D.C. Health get vaccines to the poorer and majority-Black wards that have been most affected by coronavirus deaths, which was the original intent of prioritizing people based on weight. “Obesity tends to be more prevalent … in some of those communities,” Nesbitt said Thursday. She also said she expects that as D.C. Health expands vaccine eligibility, hospitals and other locations providing vaccines will also expand their eligibility. The announcement came the same day D.C. expanded vaccine eligibility to grocery store employees, social service outreach workers, manufacturing employees and food packaging workers. D.C. officials said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not responded to a request from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam that it take on the responsibility of vaccinating federal workers, including mass transit workers and postal workers, and that they believe the request won’t be approved. As the vaccine rollout continues in D.C., Nesbitt said there was reason to be “cautiously optimistic” about a recent decline in the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases. “We have the opportunity to really take advantage of these downward trends that we’re seeing … and a vaccination program for COVID-19 that is picking up pace,” Nesbitt said. However, she added, D.C.’s seven-day average of new daily cases is still as high as it was in November, a number that indicates “substantial community spread” of the virus. Also, officials are not yet sure of the potential effects of new, more contagious variants of the virus.
Winter weather across the U.S. has delayed shipments of thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses headed to the DMV. If those doses don’t arrive soon, officials say they could be forced to cancel vaccination appointments. The Virginia Department of Health said it expects the delivery of more than 106,000 doses to be delayed because distribution channels in the Midwest and elsewhere are shut down. Maryland health officials have also warned local providers to expect delays and said Thursday that the lagging deliveries “may have a significant impact on providers’ ability to hold clinics as scheduled.” Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said the county is waiting on a shipment of 4,200 doses this week, which has been delayed until at least Friday. “Due to inclement weather, COVID-19 vaccine shipments were delayed from the manufacturer this week. Due to this delay, unfortunately the health department will need to postpone all first dose vaccinations scheduled on Feb. 19 until the vaccine arrives from the state,” Alsobrooks tweeted early Thursday evening. “All second dose vaccination appointments will continue as planned. If you have a first dose vaccination scheduled on Feb. 19, you will receive a new appointment as soon as possible.” Montgomery County’s shipment of 4,500 first doses has also been delayed, said county Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Mary Anderson. The county has enough doses on hand for appointments scheduled for Friday and Saturday, she said. However, the county may not be able to schedule appointments early next week if more vaccine doses don’t arrive. Across the U.S., a winter blast has snarled logistics networks used to distribute the vaccine, which is secured from the manufacturers by the federal government then shipped to states before they are apportioned out to local jurisdictions.
The Prince William County School Board voted early Thursday morning to stick with its original plan for all students who have selected hybrid learning to return to classrooms beginning next week. In doing so, the board rejected a proposal from Supt. Steve Walts to bring students in grades 4-6 and 9 back starting March 9 and students in grades 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12 beginning April 6. Under the plan adopted at Wednesday night’s meeting, students in grades 4-6 and 9 will return to class two days a week starting Feb. 25. Remaining students will return beginning March 2. The plan was designed to give sixth and ninth graders a few days in their new middle and high schools, respectively, before older students return. All students have the option to choose virtual-only learning. District staff said that so far, only about 30% of students had chosen the hybrid model, with the rest planning to remain totally virtual. Pre-kindergarten through third-grade students are already back in school two days per week. Bell schedules also will change for all students starting Tuesday. High schools will begin around 7:30 a.m., middle schools about 8:15 a.m. and elementary schools near 9 a.m. That is the reverse of the current schedule, in which elementary schools begin first and high schools begin last. The plan was initially adopted in January. but the board deferred final approval until Wednesday night in order to ensure that COVID-19 cases didn’t continue to surge and that teachers could be vaccinated. Walts voiced his objection to the plan again Wednesday night, presenting a schedule that would have delayed the return for grades four and up until all teachers could receive their second vaccine doses. He and others cited concerns about a lack of substitute teachers district-wide, something that was echoed by a number of principals who were invited to share their thoughts on the respective return plans. Chair Babur Lateef, who has supported a more aggressive plan for returning to classrooms, said he didn’t want to wait one more day, arguing that the vaccines in use were largely effective after the first dose and that health officials at the state and federal level hadn’t based their return guidance on a full vaccine regimen. According to school officials, every staff member has been offered an opportunity to receive a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with the second doses planned for administration Feb. 20 and 21 for older or more vulnerable staff members. As for students currently learning in school buildings, there were 91 student cases being treated as positive between Feb. 1-14 or .75% of the total in-person student population. The county still remains in the Virginia Department of Health’s highest risk category for school reopening indicators. The 14-day average test positivity rate is 10.8% and the county is averaging 535 new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days. But those and other numbers are declining rapidly, putting the county in the low risk category of VDH’s secondary indicators. “These are great vaccines, we’ve done an incredible job of getting people their first dose,” Lateef said. “The understanding must be clear. President Biden, Governor Northam, the CDC, the VDH has not required vaccines to return.” The board deadlocked 4-4 on Walt’s proposed plan. Lateef then brought the board’s January proposal back for another vote, and the board voted 5-3 to bring students back next week. Standard mitigation tactics will be enforced, including proper mask-wearing, maintaining physical distance and new directional signage. Associate Superintendent for Support Services Albert Ciarochi said staff had examined every HVAC system in the district last summer and fall to ensure they were set up to move as much air through buildings as possible. In classrooms with windows, teachers will be instructed to keep them open when possible to maintain recommended air flow, which is shown to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some students will eat lunch in school gymnasiums and auditoriums, others in classrooms. Principal Michael Bishop of Patriot High in Nokesville said each lunch desk would have a number and a QR code to track which students sat at which tables to be used for contact tracing. Because of the staggered attendance, efforts to limit the number of people each student and teacher interacts with and the fact that not all students will be participating in the hybrid model, class sizes will be significantly smaller. But principals voiced concern about keeping students from interacting too closely between classes, as well as the possibility for staff shortages. Woodbridge High School Principal Heather Abney told the board that was her main concern, saying that so far the school has been able to avoid having to quarantine significant numbers of staff because the special education and English-language learners currently receiving in-person instruction have been doing so in pods with limited interaction outside those groups. “Those students are in the same classroom all day. That’s been effective, and we’ve been able to have those students stay without quarantine,” Abney said. “My number one concern is lack of substitutes. … I have one substitute that is assigned to Woodbridge each day, I have two substitutes total. … As of right now we have 25% of our students [planning] to return in person, 350 students moving about the building a minimum of seven times a day. As a principal, I’m very concerned when I have a COVID case, how I’m going to track that.” After the final vote to adopt the January return plan, Walts asked the board what authority he had to possibly delay the start date, saying that a number of teachers and parents had told him that they believed he had the authority to implement whichever plan he best saw fit. After some back and forth, the board consulted with its attorney, who said that he could close schools because of specific outbreaks or staff shortages, but that the return plan was the board’s decision.
Travelers flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National or Dulles International airports will be to get a coronavirus test right at the airport. COVID-19 testing sites will open at both airports under a contract between the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and health and wellness company XpresCheck. Both testing sites, which will offer rapid and diagnostic testing, will be located before passengers pass through security. The sites are expected to open by mid-March, the company said. At Reagan National, the pop-up testing facility will be located in National Hall at the existing location for XpresSpa, which is the testing firm’s parent company and has been closed since the pandemic began. There will be four testing rooms, and the site will be able to administer about 300 tests day. At Dulles International, the new testing facility will be built in the main international terminal and will feature nine testing rooms with the capacity to administer more than 500 tests a day. Although diagnostic coronavirus tests are typically covered by insurance, passengers should expect some out-of-pocket costs, ranging from $75 for a PCR test to $200 for a rapid test, according to an XpresCheck price list. XpresCheck currently provides COVID-19 testing at six U.S. airports, including JFK International, Denver International, Boston Logan International, Phoenix Sky Harbor International, Salt Lake City International and Newark Liberty International. “We recognize the important role our COVID-19 testing facilities play in supporting domestic and international air travel by ensuring airport employees and travelers feel safe and confident when traveling through our nation’s capital,” XpresSpa CEO Doug Satzman said in a press release. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now requires all passengers on international flights coming into the U.S., including U.S. citizens, to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
The University of Maryland is taking additional measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 after seeing a “significant and concerning increase” in positive coronavirus cases on and around campus. “Over the past several days, we have seen clusters (defined as three positive cases within a defined area) and outbreaks (defined as five or more positive cases within a defined area) in several locations on and off campus,” university President Darryll J Pines said in a letter to the campus community Thursday. Among measures being implemented until further notice include a limit of five people at student gatherings, both indoors and outdoors, except for in-person instruction, with mask and physical distancing requirements for all gatherings, regardless of location and size. Also, students in residences halls and fraternity-sorority housing where positive cases are growing must remain in their units or rooms. They should also not go to in-person classes or visit common facilities. In addition, the university said that it will have additional coronavirus testing for all asymptomatic students who live in residences where outbreaks or clusters have been reported.
Due to the winter storm that was expected to hit the DMV overnight bringing snow and sleet, most public vaccination sites and testing centers are closed today. Montgomery County-run COVID-19 vaccination clinics scheduled for today have been canceled. The clinic scheduled for Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville will be moved to Saturday at the same location. The clinic set for Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg will be held on Saturday at the school. People with appointments for today’s clinics will be rescheduled for the same time for the Saturday/Sunday clinics. County-run testing clinics are also closed today and residents with appointments will have to reschedule. Adventist HealthCare also canceled its vaccine clinics in Rockville, Takoma Park and Fort Washington today. Appointments for the Fort Washington clinic will be honored at the scheduled times on Friday. Healthcare workers scheduled for second doses today will be moved to Friday. Prince George’s County has also closed its vaccination sites today. Appointments for today will be rescheduled for next week. Also, the county’s outdoor testing site at First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville is closed today. Anne Arundel County’s vaccination and testing clinics have all been canceled. Individuals with vaccine appointments at Anne Arundel Community College and Maryland Live Casino will be notified by phone or email with information on rescheduling. D.C. does not operate any vaccine sites and instead has partnered with healthcare providers and pharmacies, but all public testing sites in the city are closed today due to the storm. In Alexandria, the health department’s vaccine clinic was canceled today. People with an appointment will get an email with instructions on how to reschedule. Alexandria’s testing kiosks at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, Ben Brenman Park and Leonard “Chick” Armstrong Recreation Center are all closed. Arlington County closed all its vaccination clinics and testing sites. People with appointments have been notified with rescheduling options. The Fairfax County Health Department’s vaccination clinics scheduled at the County Government Center and the four health department offices are also canceled. People with appointments will receive an email with a link to reschedule their vaccination for next week. Loudoun County has closed its vaccination site and call center. Those who had appoi8ntments will be contacted by phone or email to reschedule their shot. Also, the testing events at Cascades Library in Potomac Falls is canceled. Testing next week is scheduled for Feb. 23 and 25 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Dulles South Recreation and Community Center in South Riding. Finally, the Prince William Health District’s vaccine clinics at Potomac Middle School and Manassas Mall are canceled. People with confirmed appointments should call 703-872-7759, option 4, after 9 a.m. to reschedule. The testing site at Woodbridge Senior Center is also closed.
Starting today, D.C. will open COVID-19 vaccination appointments to four more categories of people. The new groups include grocery store employees, including those who work at larger chain stores and superstores, as well as smaller businesses that sell food, such as convenience stores, neighborhood markets, bodegas and delis; health and human services and social services outreach workers; manufacturing employees; and those who work in food packaging, such as Food & Friends and other similar agencies. At 6 p.m. today, about 2,450 appointments will be available for residents to register for who live in priority ZIP codes in Wards 5, 7 and 8, and are age 65 or older, healthcare employees and members of the new groups. Workers should book appointments based on whether they live in a priority ZIP code, not the location of their store or workplace. At 6 p.m. Friday, another 2,450 appointments will be available for eligible residents in any D.C. ZIP code. Starting this week, appointments will open at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays one week, then at 9 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays the following week. Register online at coronavirus.dc.gov/vaccinatedc or by calling 855-363-0333. More than 200 call-takers will be available to help on Thursday evening and through Friday. Appointments have been set aside for residents who are only able to book by phone. The call center will be open until 8 p.m.
Prince George’s County Public Schools will reopen for hybrid learning with students in classrooms two days a week in April once all staff who want the COVID-19 vaccine can get it. PGCPS CEO Monica Goldson announced in a YouTube video on Wednesday that special education students in Kindergarten through 12th grade, students in Pre-K through 6th grade and seniors will begin hybrid learning on April 8. Students in grades 7-11 will return to school buildings on April 15. Parents can also choose to continue virtual learning for the rest of the school year “While we’ve made substantial investments to implement a virtual learning experience for all of our students, we do know that not all of our students were successful during this time,” Goldson said. “I believe that our plan to implement hybrid learning where students have two days of in-person learning and three days remotely will help to meet the needs of many of our students and will ensure we continue to prioritize health, safety, equity and excellence.” Central office staff will return to buildings on March 3 and teachers will return March 17 to teach virtually from their classrooms. Spring sports practice begins April 6. “These are not easy decisions. Ensuring that every staff who wanted the vaccination was key. Making sure our buildings are ready and prepared to receive staff and students was important. And I constantly monitored our COVID-19 numbers to ensure that there’s a continual decline in cases in our community,” Goldson said. “All those factors have helped to arrive at the decision we’re at today. As a school system we have shown our restraint in making sure we don’t rush to reopen, but it is now time that we serve our community and our students by doing what’s right and safe in April. The announcement comes after Gov. Larry Hogan emphasized his desire last week for schools to reopen for some in-person learning by March 1. He vowed to supply one million COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment to local school districts. Goldson said the district has been preparing for hybrid learning and monitoring the decline in the county’s positive COVID cases over the past three weeks. The county currently has a 7.5% positivity rate with fewer than 26 deaths per week since the middle of January, according to county health data. PGCPS has applied for additional PPE from the state and have received a shipment of PPE from Home Depot. Goldson said she intends to have every student and teacher tested for the virus each week to mitigate transmission. So far, Goldson said, about 8,500 school employees have asked to get the vaccine prior to returning to the classroom. Educators are currently being vaccinated under the county’s vaccination plan, which began last month. “By the end of this week we’ll have 5,300 employees that will receive their first dose of the vaccine,” Goldson said. “So our plan will ensure that by the time we reopen staff will have the opportunity to receive both first and second doses.” Theresa Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, applauded Goldson’s efforts to get vaccines for employees. “[Goldson] is putting the safety of our employees first by not rushing us to go back to hybrid or in-person learning on March 1,” Dudley said. “She can clearly see that vaccines are in short supply and that many of our employees who want to get vaccines have not been able to get them.”
Virginia added a dedicated call center Wednesday to go with its newly-launched COVID-19 vaccine preregistration website to help residents who either don’t have internet access or are struggling to get an appointment. Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the call center, which has around 750 people staffing it, during a press conference Wednesday but urged residents to use the website if they are able to so that more people without internet access can be helped. The call center number is 877-VAX-INVA (877-829-4682). It will take calls from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. seven days a week. “We know that some people prefer to talk to a live person. I’m one of those people,” Northam said. “That’s why we also made a dedicated call center a priority, and that launches today.” The call center can take calls in English and Spanish, and residents can request a callback in more than 100 other languages, Northam said. “This new system will provide functionality we have all been asking for,” he said. “One, it’s centralized, which makes it easier on our local health departments. And two, it gives you confirmation you’ve signed up and periodic update emails.” Northam said the website, which went online Tuesday, had already processed around 240,000 residents, and that he used the site to preregister for an appointment. “That tells us that the system is working, and it is meeting a demand,” Northam said. Those who had already preregistered with their local health department do not need to do so again on the new site as those records are being transferred to the unified database. One criticism of the current vaccination preregistration site is that its Spanish translation is a bit inaccurate. Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the issue was that the current Spanish translation was done by running the English page through Google Translate. He said an updated page done by someone who is fluent in Spanish is currently being worked on. “Yesterday evening, we acquired a vendor through our health equity work group … They’ve translated it,” Oliver said. “This vendor utilizes native speakers of Spanish and so this is human beings as opposed to AI doing the translation, so it’s much more reliable and culturally proficient.” Oliver said it would take about 24 hours for the Spanish-language page to be updated. Northam also said that the number of Virginia residents getting vaccinated is going up. The commonwealth is administering an average of 34,000 vaccinations per day, but the state’s goal is 50,000 shots a day. Some 366,000 people have been fully vaccinated in Virginia, which has a population of about 8.5 million. Still, Northam said more vaccine doses are needed in order to reach the desired inoculation rate. The governor also said he plans to soon allow up to 250 spectators at outdoor sports, allow children to attend overnight summer camps and is reviewing other restrictions on outdoor events.
Montgomery County is about halfway through vaccinating the county residents ages 75 and older against COVID-19 and expects to finish vaccinating several thousand teachers who are needed back in classrooms by the school district’s planned March 15 reopening. About 48.6% of the county’s 75 and older residents have been vaccinated, said Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, during a press conference Wednesday. That is roughly 35,000 of the county’s 73,000 senior residents. That includes vaccinations performed at county-run clinics, as well as retail pharmacies, hospitals and the state’s mass vaccination clinics. Given the tight supply of vaccine, clinics run by the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services are only vaccinating healthcare workers and residents 75 and older. “Obviously, we want to get further into that group before we move into other parts of the 1B phase,” Stoddard said. County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said there is no “magical percentage” to reach before moving on to the next phase. While the county isn’t targeting 100% before moving on, he added, “We want to make sure that everybody who is in that category has had a chance to register for an appointment, whether it’s through our site or other sites, before we move forward.” Gayles said the department is looking at rolling out mobile clinics that would bring vaccines to certain communities to make sure no older residents are being left behind. “We are concerned that there are those who are over 75, for whatever reason, haven’t preregistered in the system and we’re missing them,” he said. The next tier under Phase 1B includes public transit employees, grocery store workers and teachers. Teachers have been able to get vaccinated at pharmacies, as well as through a partnership between Montgomery County Public Schools, Johns Hopkins University and Suburban Hospital. About 6,000 MCPS teachers have been vaccinated as part of that partnership. The first stage of MCPS’ plan for returning students to classrooms calls for 9,000 employees. “That means we have several more weeks to get vaccines in arms, and I suspect that given the current pacing, we’ll certainly have just about all that 9,000 with a shot in the arm by that period of time,” Stoddard said. “We think that we’re not off of pace of having at least one shot in the arm for teachers” before the March 15 return to classrooms. Overall, more than 111,000 county residents have received at least one dose of vaccine — the highest in the state. That amounts to more than 10.6% of the county’s population, which is the largest in the state. “We still have a long way to go,” County Executive Marc Elrich said.The county health department receives 4,500 doses a week. Thousands of other doses are shipped directly to pharmacies and hospitals, which have their own registration systems. Elrich called the lack of a single registration and appointment process “haphazard.” Montgomery County’s vaccine program has been hampered by a state-run registration system that allows links to appointments to be shared. Those links have turned up on online message boards, resulting in hundreds of ineligible people showing up with appointments at county sites, who are then turned away. “The state is still trying to fix their software,” Elrich said. “They’ve had a couple of false starts. They’re running another beta test today.” Last week, the Maryland Department of Health provided longer-term projections of the number of doses to be provided to each health department over the next few weeks. Gayles said that will aid in planning, but fixing the registration system is key. “That will allow us to feel comfortable and confident when we send a link out to these appointments, that they are going to the people who actually are eligible for them. You can imagine a situation where we were planning clinics out for a month, and we send out a link, and people are sending it out to everybody else and it’s spreading through the community.”
A 65-year-old Maryland man who recently died had the P.1 variant of the coronavirus that was first identified in Brazil. The man who lived in the DMV recently traveled internationally, and the state is currently in the process of contact tracing to avoid additional spread, according to a Wednesday news release. “State public health officials are closely monitoring the P.1 variant, and we mourn the loss of this Marylander to COVID-19,” Gov. Larry Hogan said the statement. “As we continue to test for these variants, we strongly encourage Marylanders to continue taking precautions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, including mask wearing, regular hand washing and physical distancing.” Studies are still being done on the variant, but it is believed to be more transmissible than the initial strain of the virus. It isn’t known if it causes a more serious infection. The Brazil variant was first detected in the U.S. at the end of January. Two other variants, those first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa, were found in Maryland last month. The announcement said that scientists believe current tests will still work in identifying the variant. Scientists are also working to establish whether the current vaccines are effective in combatting the P.1 variant.
Most low-income Marylanders due state stimulus payments of $300 for individuals and $500 for families under the state’s RELIEF Act of 2021 signed Monday by Gov. Larry Hogan could see that money by Friday. Maryland began processing stimulus payments Tuesday morning. State Comptroller Peter Franchot said during a press conference Tuesday that 98% of the nearly 423,000 eligible recipients will see money by the end of this week. “I know as comptroller that time is critical, and many families are in desperate need right now. Every one of my 1,100 employees are absolutely committed to getting these payments into the pockets of eligible recipients as quickly as possible,” Franchot said. He said 266,985 electronic payments totaling $113.6 million were sent to banks Tuesday for “fraud detection reviews” before landing in recipients’ bank accounts. Another 148,972 paper checks worth $61.7 million will be printed, too, and mailed by next Monday, Franchot said. Relief payments for 6,574 Marylanders are “currently in a holding pattern,” as he said the state doesn’t have a verified mailing address for those recipients. Marylanders who wish to check for their eligibility can access the state’s https://interactive.marylandtaxes.gov/Relief RELIEF Act Stimulus Portal. Franchot said those with specific questions concerning relief payments can email the state at email@example.com or call 833-345-2787.
The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority reduced Metrorail frequency during rush hour Tuesday because of low ridership and plans to expand Metrobus service. Trains will now operate at the same schedule throughout the day with trains every 12 minutes on the Blue, Orange, Silver, Green and Yellow lines resulting in wait times of between four and six minutes at stations that serve multiple lines and every 6 minutes on the Red Line. Metro called the changes a way to “normalize” rail service as many workers no longer commute to offices. “As we have done throughout the pandemic, Metro will continue to evaluate service based on the region’s recovery, return to work plans, ridership and other factors, including the need for continued funding to support critical transit services until ridership normalizes post-pandemic,” Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly said. Metrorail last week reported 75,000-84,000 daily trips, about 88% less than the same period last year. The continued low ridership prompted Metro to cut peak-hour service. Metro’s peak service had operated from opening-9:30 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. weekdays. The transit system’s hours won’t change, and trains will continue operating on the same weekend schedule. WMATA said the changes bring rail service in line with demand while managing costs and budget constraints. It also will give Metro time to study new commuting patterns, which haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels and many employees work from home. WMATA officials previously said they didn’t expect a return to pre-pandemic ridership until at least spring. Despite the reduction in service during peak times, there will be no reduction in fares. Metro will continue to charge higher rates during peak hours. Metro’s peak fares run between $2.25-$6, while off-peak fares are between $2-$3.85. Ly said WMATA’s board would have to change the fee structure to decrease rates, while noting that Metro hasn’t increased fares in more than three years. Board members were moving toward a fare hike this year before the pandemic, but Ly said those plans have been shelved. No fare hikes are proposed this year or in the next fiscal year, she said. While wait times grow during peak periods on Metrorail, they should be shorter on Metrobus, where WMATA plans to expand service March 14. Metro is increasing bus capacity because of growing ridership, even as rail ridership is mostly stagnant. Last week, Metrobus reported between 149,000-166,000 daily trips, or about 60% fewer than the same period last year. Metro said customers will see more buses on 125 lines, with more routes to be added on weekends. More details about the bus increases will be provided later. WMATA also announced plans to move forward with construction projects this year, taking advantage of low ridership. On Tuesday, Metro it had awarded a contract to replace 130 escalators as part of a decade-long program. The $179 million, seven-year contract was awarded to Kone, an Illinois-based company, which will start work at 32 of Metro’s 91 stations in May. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the escalators being replaced are an average of 38 years old. In November 2019, Metro finished an eight-year project that replaced 145 escalators and rehabilitated 153 others. With the latest contract, 84% of Metro’s 618 escalators have been replaced, rehabilitated or are scheduled for work.
Students in Fairfax and Loudoun counties returned to classrooms Tuesday. For some, it is the first time since a December spike in COVID-19 cases that sent all students home to learn, and others it is the first time since the pandemic began last March. In Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district, several small groups of students were back in school buildings. Pre-kindergarten students through grade 12 students with special needs returned to schools four days a week. Students in career-oriented programs also returned to classrooms one or two days a week. In Loudoun County Public Schools, students in grades 3-5 whose families chose hybrid learning in a November 2020 survey were reunited with teachers and classmates in-person twice a week. In both FCPS and LCPS, families who chose 100% distance learning will continue learning from home for the rest of the school year. Loudoun County families were advised last week by Interim Supt. Scott Ziegler of safety protocols intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the school district. Parents are expected to complete an online symptoms check daily, before their child walks to school, rides the bus or is dropped off. LCPS, and most school systems in Northern Virginia, has prevented widespread outbreaks within schools by following physical distancing, mask and hand-washing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Virginia Department of Health. In recent weeks, as the number of cases in Virginia have decreased, coinciding with priority vaccinations of teachers — including in Fairfax and Loudoun counties — and pressure from Gov. Ralph Northam to offer some form of in-person learning by mid-March, all Northern Virginia school districts have set return-to-school target dates. LCPS middle and high schoolers whose parents previously chose the hybrid model will return to classrooms two days a week by March 3. In FCPS, the plan is to reintroduce smaller groups of students each week, with all grades offering hybrid learning by March 16.
The Montgomery County Education Association, the union representing Montgomery County Public Schools teachers, took a vote of “no confidence” in the district’s reopening plan, officially solidifying its stance that the plan is “irresponsible.” In a news release issued Tuesday night, the union said members “overwhelmingly passed” the resolution during an emergency meeting. The news release does indicate what the vote was. The resolution says the district is not equipped to implement the plan and it risks students’ and staff members’ safety. The union demanded that MCPS implement a contact tracing and COVID-19 testing program, adhere to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention for reopening, and “provide all employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before a return to in-person instruction.” It also wants the district to release data about ventilation results of each classroom and office before teachers return to buildings and provide updated air quality controls as needed. In some schools, MCPS plans to have educators teaching both virtual and remote classes at the same time, which the union argues will require additional support staff that the district is not prepared to provide. The lack of resources will most severely affect Black and Hispanic students, who have largely chosen to continue with virtual classes, the union said. “MCEA cannot support the current plan, which will only increase inequity in Montgomery County schools,” the news release said. In a statement, MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala wrote that the district “has developed a comprehensive recovery plan that prioritizes the safety of students and staff, and the continued growth of all students. While we understand that staff may have some questions and concerns, these plans were developed with input from a diverse set of MCPS stakeholders and are reflective of the district’s commitment to fostering a partnership that benefits our students, staff and community,” she said. “We look forward to welcoming the first group of students back to our buildings on March 1 and March 15 and know that our staff is committed to meeting the needs of our students both in-person and virtually.” The union requested a meeting with the school board to discuss its concerns. The no-confidence vote is an official showing by the union, which represents about 14,000 educators, that it does not support the reopening plan. The first group of about 700 students — less than 1% of students — is scheduled to return to schools on March 1 after almost a year of virtual classes. Other students will begin to phase back into classroom March 15. Students were last in schools for regular, in-person classes on March 13. MCEA leadership last week called the reopening plan, which the school board unanimously approved Feb. 9, irresponsible. “MCPS is refusing to acknowledge that the lack of available vaccines is preventing educators from receiving the protection they need, and exposing them to unnecessary risk of harm in the in-school setting,” MCEA said in the press release. Educators do not meet the criteria to be vaccinated at county-run sites yet. They can, however, receive vaccines from some private providers or at state-run mass vaccination sites. Most staff members who will return or who have been working in buildings already to hand out free meals or complete other essential work have not been vaccinated. This month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said school reopening should not depend on teachers being vaccinated. Despite its objections to MCPS’ reopening plan, MCEA announced this week it has reached a tentative agreement about working conditions when staff returns to schools. In Maryland, unions are not legally allowed to go on strike. In announcing the tentative agreement, which must still be ratified by both sides, the union wrote that it “felt it was imperative to formalize protections in writing.” The agreement ensures that educators can take time off with pay to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and establishes that educators will be granted paid sick leave if they are exposed to or become sick with COVID-19 and cannot work. MCEA said it is still jointly negotiating with other employee unions some issues, such as hazard pay, instructional models and “systemic inequities.”
Virginia renters will get at least another $160 million in relief from the federal government. The funds are part of $524 million Virginia received under the most recent COVID-19 assistance package from Congress, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday. The commonwealth will release additional dollars into the statewide Rent Relief Program as needed, Northam said during a press conference in Arlington. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development will oversee the fund. “I urge eligible households to act quickly and work with their landlords to seek rental assistance through this program,” he said. The commonwealth established a statewide rent and mortgage relief program in June using funds from the federal CARES Act passed last March. State officials said the program has provided nearly $84 million in rent and mortgage assistance since it launched. Tenants can inquire about eligibility by calling 2-1-1 and apply for assistance online. A new Virginia law requires landlords to help tenants obtain rental assistance before they can proceed with an eviction. Tenants facing eviction in Virginia can seek protection under a national eviction moratorium that expires at the end of March. But the order’s protections are porous, and evictions have continued to take place in Virginia during the pandemic, with some tenants summoned to court for owing as little as $380. Despite the moratorium, nearly 5,000 eviction judgments were issued in the state between October and December last year, according to the RVA Eviction Lab. Courts in Virginia issued more than 36,000 judgements for eviction in 2020.
Under pressure from the Montgomery County Council to end COVID-19 hazard pay or create a plan to fund it, County Executive Marc Elrich and three unions agreed to end it. Hazard pay was given to county employees who had to work with the public during the pandemic, such as administering COVID-19 tests or vaccines. The pay began early last April and by mid-January, the county had spent $77.7 million. Employees who had direct contact with the public were given an extra $10 per hour. Those working in an office, not near the public, received an extra $3 per hour. In November, county officials sought repayment of about $100,000 in hazard pay after some permitting employees improperly claimed it for ineligible work. The issue was detailed in a report released by the county’s Office of the Inspector General, which investigated the county’s Department of Permitting Services management for allowing inspectors to receive the extra pay for time they worked in the office and at home. Permitting employees were found to be overpaid between March 29-Aug. 29. About half of the inspectors consistently claimed 80 hours of time working with the public for each pay period. Elrich negotiated the end of hazard with the three labor unions and announced the new agreement on Saturday in an email to county employees. The agreement restores some compensation increases that the council didn’t approve last spring. Beginning with the April 11 pay period, eligible employees would receive service increments and longevity steps. Employees whose anniversary dates were earlier in the fiscal year would have the increments begin in the same pay period. The raise is not retroactive. “In addition, a 1.5% general wage adjustment for all employees, including unrepresented employees, will go into effect starting with the June 20 pay period,” Elrich wrote. The council will have to approve the agreement. The council previously voted 7-2 against pay raises for the fiscal year in May because of expected revenue shortfalls. Then-council vice president Tom Hucker and council member Will Jawando voted against the motions, indicating that they wanted to accept the renegotiated contracts and give raises to both union and non-union employees. They said frontline employees deserved pay raises for their service during the pandemic. The council has held several closed meetings on the bargaining of the agreement in the last two weeks. Elrich wrote in the email that he is “confident the councilmembers will swiftly act to approve this measured proposal.” Municipal and County Government Employees Organization president Gino Renne wrote in an email to union members that county employees received the highest hazard pay in the region. “Other local jurisdictions who provided a COVID hazard pay ended it months ago,” he wrote. “In the event a new stimulus package includes money for a hazard pay, we will be back to the bargaining table with the executive on your behalf.”
Dentists, medical students and other clinicians can now administer COVID-19 vaccines in Virginia after Gov. Ralph Northam signed new legislation into law expanding the eligibility of healthcare workers who can administer vaccines during the pandemic. The law gives the commonwealth additional help with vaccine distribution. Virginia’s Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said training vaccinators takes “just a few hours.” Some of that training will break existing practices that are usual for most vaccinations but could damage the coronavirus vaccine. “The Pfizer vaccine, for example, is so finnicky,” Oliver said. “Most of us would pick up a cold vile and shake it before drawing it up into the syringe. If you do that, you just wiped out 11 doses. But it doesn’t take long to learn.” Many dentists have pushed to administer the vaccine within their own practices, but Oliver said that possibility is unlikely in the near future because most dental practices lack the storage capability. “Both vaccines require special handling. The Pfizer [requires] -80 C. The Moderna is a little more friendly but it still requires -20 C,” Oliver said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also requires vaccine sites to have special measurement tools that can prove the facility can adequately store the vaccine for long periods of time. Interested dental and other health care clinics can sign up to become vaccination sites using the Virginia Immunization Information System. Sites must also apply with the CDC. Above all, Oliver said the extreme scarcity of the vaccine is also making it difficult to get the vaccine to all healthcare providers. Virginia administered nearly 1.4 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday evening, according to VDH data.
A new working paper from economists at San Diego State and Bentley universities found no evidence that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol led by unmasked Donald Trump supporters caused increased spread in COVID-19 in D.C. But other parts of the country weren’t so lucky. The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, estimated the impact of the Capitol riot on public health using cell phone data. Despite warnings from Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the riot could lead to a fresh wave of COVID-19 cases, researchers find no evidence that the insurrection “substantially increased” COVID-19 spread in D.C. over the next month, probably because D.C. residents avoided the protests that led to the riot. But the rioters’ home counties “experienced a significant increase in the rate of daily cumulative COVID-19 case growth,” the researchers say, leading them to conclude that the riots “may have contributed to non-localized COVID-19 spread.” In an interview two days after the insurrection, Redfield said maskless rioters at the Capitol would be “in cars and trains and planes going home all across the country,” leading to “public health consequences.” Those consequences emerged in places like Harris County, Texas, and Wake County, N.C., jurisdictions that saw a large number of their residents in downtown D.C. on Jan. 6, the paper said. Counties that didn’t have any restrictions on indoor dining saw an even higher rate of spread after the riots, with case growth between 0.7-1.4 percentage points. Public health experts haven’t always accurately predicted the impact of large gatherings during the pandemic, including the Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. last summer and former President Donald Trump’s May 2020 campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., the paper points out. Contrary to health officials’ warnings, those events didn’t lead to big spikes in cases because other factors interfered, the researchers wrote. “Offsetting risk avoidance behaviors,” such as mask-wearing at the Black Lives Matter protests and temperature checks at the Tulsa rally, curbed a wave of new community-level cases, the paper said. But the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota did turn into a super-spreader event, because many Sturgis residents participated in the rally and local officials didn’t put tight restrictions in place. Neither condition existed in D.C. during the Jan. 6 riot, the researchers said. While at least 38 U.S. Capitol Police officers and 150 National Guard members tested positive for COVID-19 after the insurrection, many local residents stayed home at the urging of elected officials. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser kept dining rooms closed and implemented a curfew after the demonstration turned violent. Then D.C. residents laid low for a while, the paper said, “consistent with ‘lockdown conditions’ in many quarters of the District in the period leading up to the inauguration of President Biden.” The findings suggest that local restrictions play an important role in mitigating COVID-19 spread around large public gatherings. More than 40% of D.C. residents stayed home full-time between Jan. 5-Jan. 7, cell phone data show. On the day of the riots, about 22% of cell phone pings captured downtown came from residents of Maryland and Virginia. About 76% came from other states. Only 2.4% of cell phone pings downtown that day came from D.C. residents, the report said. D.C. recorded an anomalously high spike in COVID-19 cases on Jan. 11. Since then, daily case rates have continued to decline. As of Feb 14, D.C. had a seven-day average of 17.9 cases for every 100,000 residents, with a total of 39,000 cases since the pandemic began.
While Prince George’s County hosts a state-run COVID-19 mass vaccine site, county residents lag behind in receiving the vaccine. While Prince George’s County represents about 15% of the state’s population, state health officials said, county residents make up just 7% of those who’ve received their first vaccine doses. Maryland Acting Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader told the state senators that county and state efforts to expand vaccinations continue to fall short, even though vaccine appointments have been made available at Six Flags America in Bowie. “Most of the appointments were taken up by folks from other parts of the state,” Schrader said during the fourth weekly meeting of the state Senate’s vaccine oversight work group. “Montgomery County, for example, had 3,300 people make appointments, and they came from 22 of the 24 jurisdictions. And, we actually had reserved spots for Prince George’s County ahead of time, so we still have tremendous work to do.” Schrader said the mass vaccination site administered almost 20,000 vaccinations on Saturday and about 16,500 on Sunday. Public health officials have said several factors result in vaccine hesitancy in minority communities, including the speed with which it was developed. Mistrust based on historic health policies and clinical studies that have targeted minority communities, such as the federal study of untreated syphilis among Black men centered in Tuskegee, Ala., has also contributed to the reluctance. “What we’ve asked the White House to help us with, and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], is tell us what are the critical success factors that have very high probability of getting minorities and people of color to take the shot, and they said they’re working on it and they want to give us information, but they don’t have a silver bullet right now,” Schrader said. But some senators cited other potential factors discouraging participation in the county, such as internet-based registration, unhelpful directions from the state’s 2-1-1 COVID-19 telephone hotline and the lack of a central registry to make vaccination appointments. “There are many Prince Georgians who want to get vaccines. And to say that no one in Prince George’s County wants to get the vaccine, therefore they’re all coming from other places, doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said state Sen. James Rosapepe, who represents parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. Maryland health officials said more efforts are being made to bring the vaccine to hard-to-reach Black and Hispanic communities in the county. Schrader said the state is currently partnering with a vaccine provider and Reid Temple AME Church, a large congregation in the Glenn Dale community of Prince George’s County, to provide vaccinations to eligible church members. As of Monday night, more than 749,000 people in Maryland have received at least one vaccine dose.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a heavily amended version of his billion-dollar COVID-19 relief package into law Monday, authorizing thousands of low-income Marylanders to get stimulus checks. Hogan praised the speedy and largely bipartisan passage of the RELIEF Act through the legislature before signing the bill into law Monday. “It’s almost unheard of for any major piece of legislation to pass in such a short period of time, and with such universal bipartisan support,” said Hogan, who pressed for quick passage of the legislation. The relief package was subject to heated debate and several amendments as it made its way through the General Assembly over the past month, with lawmakers characterizing its final form as a compromise. Under the finalized relief package, low-income taxpayers who filed for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in 2019 will receive direct stimulus payments of $500 for families and $300 for individuals. The package also includes the largest single EITC increase in Maryland history. The RELIEF Act will increase the state’s match to the federal EITC for taxpayers with dependents from 28% to 45% for three years. That means a family with two or more kids that earns $25,000 a year will see a yearly credit increase of roughly $1,100. Businesses and certain taxpayers will also see substantial tax cuts as a result of the relief effort: The package slashes taxes on unemployment benefits for Marylanders who meet certain income criteria and also prevents businesses from seeing a drastic increase in unemployment taxes due to COVID-related layoffs. Businesses will also be able to hold off on paying unemployment taxes until next year. Other components of the RELIEF Act include a temporary sales tax break for small businesses and eliminating taxes on pandemic-related grants and forgiven loans. It also includes nearly $300 million in targeted relief funding to help struggling Marylanders, including funding for food banks and utility bill relief. The House passed the relief effort last week after a last-minute debate over whether to send out stimulus checks to a broader group of taxpayers. Advocates and some Democratic lawmakers worried that, because the EITC requires a Social Security number, thousands of immigrant taxpayers would be left out. People who file taxes with individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITIN), including undocumented immigrants, won’t receive the RELIEF Act’s stimulus checks. House Democrats made an eleventh-hour effort to add ITIN filers to the bill last week, but that amendment was withdrawn after Republican objections and questions over the amendment’s viability threatened to hold up the fast-tracked bill.
Virginia’s latest analysis found that tax revenue is stronger than expected adding more than $730 million to its revenue forecast. Gov. Ralph Northam updated the General Assembly’s appropriations committees Monday morning and will meet with legislators this week for more discussions. Lawmakers will hash out where the extra cash will go. “These revised budget numbers tell us that Virginia’s economy continues to thrive, in spite of the pandemic,” Northam said in a press release. “Before the pandemic, we had passed the most progressive budget in Virginia history. These additional dollars help us get back to that historic budget and allow us to move forward with our shared priorities — providing Virginia families and businesses the relief they need to get back on their feet, supporting public schools and giving our public workers a pay raise.” January’s monthly revenue report provided additional data on retail sales tax collections for the holiday shopping season as well as individual estimated payments, corporate income tax and the recordation tax. January tax revenues saw a 6% increase from 2020, much more than the 1.2% predicted. Last summer, commonwealth officials expected a shortfall of more than $1 billion. The governor froze spending and called a special session for lawmakers to revise the state budget.
The D.C. Council will consider a bill that would exempt unemployment benefits from some taxes in 2022. Currently, unemployment benefits, which many D.C. residents have had to rely on as the pandemic forced them out of work, are not exempt from federal or city income taxes. On April 15, recipients who didn’t have taxes withheld from their benefits will have to pay a bill they may not have anticipated. But a majority of D.C. legislators have signed on to a bill from Councilmember Elissa Silverman that would exempt unemployment benefits from D.C. income tax. It is too late for the council to pass a bill for 2021’s taxes, according to Sam Rosen-Amy, Silverman’s chief of staff, because the legislation couldn’t be approved until after tax season. The law would apply to unemployment income from any state. Federal income tax would still have to be paid. But the tax exemption could come at a high cost to the city. Unemployment claims in D.C. hit a record high last year, and thousands of residents continue to receive benefits as many businesses have closed or scaled back. Rosen-Amy said it is difficult to estimate how much revenue the city would lose because of the bill because tax filers report unemployment income with the rest of their income, and it isn’t clear how much would be exempted. D.C. paid out a record $1.57 billion in unemployment benefits in 2020, according to the city’s chief financial officer. More than half of that — $970 million — was federally funded. That total also includes benefits paid to non-residents, who would not be eligible for the city tax exemption. Rosen-Amy said the fiscal impact could be similar to that of Delaware, which exempted unemployment from state taxes at an estimated cost of $18.8 million this fiscal year and $6 million next year. “We know [the exemption] will probably be relatively expensive, which is why we didn’t do it earlier. But [Councilmember Silverman] was surprised to learn that we ended last year with a $500 million surplus, meaning we probably could have easily afforded this last year,” Rosen-Amy said in an email. Unemployment income is subject to state taxes in Maryland, but it is exempt in Virginia. On the national level, advocates are urging Congress to pass a federal tax exemption for unemployment. Roughly 40 million Americans received more than $580 billion in benefits last year, according to the Century Foundation. The progressive think tank estimates that fewer than 40% of those payments had taxes withheld, meaning millions of Americans could face unexpectedly large tax bills this spring. “At a time when millions are unemployed, when families continue to face food and home insecurity, Congress and the Biden administration must act urgently to prevent these surprise tax bills, and to allow millions who have already paid tax on their 2020 benefits to receive a timely refund check,” the Century Foundation wrote in a recent report. A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen Dick Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa would eliminate federal income taxes on the first $10,200 in benefits. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has called for wholesale tax forgiveness on unemployment benefits. If Congress doesn’t act, the Treasury Department could issue a rule exempting benefits from federal income taxes, according to the Century Foundation. Silverman is expected to introduce her local tax exemption bill today. As of Monday, the measure was supported by 11 of 13 D.C. councilmembers, meaning it could survive a veto from Mayor Muriel Bowser. The at-large councilmember, who chairs the council’s labor committee, recently advocated for putting more of D.C.’s cash reserves toward direct aid for struggling residents. “Hoarding cash when our residents and businesses are in economic death spiral is not responsible,” Silverman told D.C. CFO Jeffrey DeWitt during a discussion of the city’s finances. “I think we should be pulling out all of the stops, spending our tax dollars to stabilize residents, workers, businesses, especially those in hospitality and entertainment where the pandemic has just crushed them.”
The Montgomery County Board of Education sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan last week, urging him to “expedite the dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccine to Montgomery County,” so school employees can get vaccinated sooner. On Tuesday, the school board unanimously approved a reopening plan, set to begin on March 1 for some groups of students. The plan will phase in other students beginning March 15. The majority of Montgomery County Public Schools staff who return will not have been vaccinated, because county-operated vaccination sites are not yet prioritizing educators. Some have been able to receive doses through private providers or at state run sites. The Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers’ union that represents about 14,000 educators, cited the lack of vaccinations as one reason it was concerned about the decision to reopen schools. In a statement Thursday evening, MCEA wrote that “the lack of available vaccines is preventing educators from receiving the protection they need, and exposing them to unnecessary risk of harm in the in-school setting.” In its letter to Hogan, dated Feb. 11 and released publicly on Friday, the school board wrote that the limited supply of vaccines “relative to our population has significantly restricted our ability to meet this priority goal (of vaccinating teachers) and bring our county one step closer to normalcy. … We acknowledge that you do not believe the return to in-person instruction and vaccination should be tied together, however, we all agree that providing vaccines to educators and staff would significantly improve the safety of our schools and provide for a smooth transition to in-person learning,” the letter said. “Providing the opportunity for MCPS staff to receive a vaccine prior to the start of in-person learning would significantly increase confidence in the safety of returning to school buildings.” The school board wrote that Hogan should “significantly increase” Montgomery County’s vaccine allotment “as soon as possible.” Even in the unlikely event that all teachers who are returning to classrooms were vaccinated in the coming week, they would not be fully vaccinated by the time schools are scheduled to begin reopening on March 1. Both versions of the vaccine — from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — require two doses, spaced at least three weeks apart. For weeks, Montgomery County leaders have challenged the state’s rollout of its COVID-19 vaccination program. They say the county has received fewer doses per capita than other jurisdictions have. About 9% — 98,487 — of Montgomery County residents have received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Friday. About 2.7% or 28,144 have received their second dose.
D.C. Health and the AARP held a town hall Friday to address seniors’ logistical concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine. D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt answered questions on everything from technology issues to what kind of chronic health condition qualifies seniors to sign up for the vaccine. The main thing the seniors wanted to know was how they can get vaccine appointments. Nesbitt said the city is trying to ensure everyone can easily get an appointment. Those struggling to fill in an online form can call 855-363-0333 to get help scheduling an appointment. “If you call in to make an appointment, if you have email, they’ll send you the email verification of your appointment,” Nesbitt said. “You can continue to use the correspondence electronically after you have successfully been registered via the call center.” D.C. has vaccinated one in three seniors who have asked for appointments and she said they are trying to make the process easier. “The call center is set up to be able to help people get around those challenges,” Nesbitt said. “We’ve increased the number of staff who work at the call center, you have dedicated numbers of appointments for people through the call center to be able to be responsive to these issues.” She said the goal is to vaccinate 70% of D.C.’s senior population by the end of the month. Another concern raised during the call was chronic health conditions. Nesbitt said anyone who has a chronic health condition will not have to prove it with a doctor’s note to get a coronavirus vaccine. “People will not have to go to their doctor to get a note to attest. We’re not trying to create artificial barriers for people to be able to access vaccinations,” Nesbitt said. City health officials are still working out the specifics when it comes to who will be eligible under the chronic condition tier. There is another group of essential workers between the current tier and when those with chronic health conditions are eligible. “We’re going to be very liberal in the District of Columbia in terms of which chronic health conditions would qualify,” Nesbitt said.
A trio of indicators show that COVID-19 may be easing its grip on Virginia and Northern Virginia. The number of new cases and hospitalizations for treatment of the virus, along with test positivity rates, are all falling and are at their lowest levels since late November and early December, when the worst surge was beginning. In addition, the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, which produces weekly modeling updates on the spread of the virus, said that in all but the worst-case scenario, the number of new cases in the commonwealth peaked during the week ending Jan. 24. The institute had previously forecast a peak in mid- to late February. The institute warned that risks remain, especially if the new, more contagious strains of the virus become predominant, vaccinations are slowed and Virginians become lax in their efforts to control the spread. In that scenario, cases could surge again in May. “Things are looking up,” the institute wrote in its update, released Friday. “Cases are dropping at their fastest rate since the pandemic began. Vaccine uptake is increasing. Hospitalizations and deaths are on a decline. While the situation looks promising, the model provides fair warning: We could reach another peak just as high as the one we saw this January if we relax our behavior.” As of today, the institute noted, cases are declining in 33 of the state’s 35 health districts, with only Loudoun and one district in Southwestern Virginia in “slow growth” mode. Loudoun was in “surge” mode a week ago. Statewide, 3,215 new cases of coronavirus were reported Saturday, following 3,191 on Friday. The state’s seven-day average is down to 3,035.5, the lowest it has been since Dec. 7, and less than half of the peak it hit Jan. 18, at 6,166.3. In Northern Virginia, 791 new cases were reported Saturday, following 682 on Friday. The region’s seven-day average stands at 695.1, also less than half its Jan. 18 peak of 1,628.4 and lowest since Dec. 5. Meanwhile, hospitalizations for treatment of the virus statewide have fallen below 2,000 for the first time since Dec. 8 and are now down 38% from their peak Jan. 13, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. In Northern Virginia, as of Saturday, 340 patients were hospitalized, the lowest level since Nov. 16. Average test positivity rates are also down, falling below 10% statewide for the first time since Nov. 29. In Arlington, the rate is down to 5.5%. Experts believe that when test positivity rates are above 10%, not all instances of the virus are being captured. Rates below 5% generally indicate the virus is under control.
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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.