Alexandria Urges Masks in Public Buildings
COVID-19 Cases Reach 1,209,321 in D.C., Md. and Va.
As of Wednesday morning, 50,268 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in D.C. with 1,148 deaths; there have been 466,930 cases in Maryland with 9,594 deaths; and in Virginia there have been 692,105 cases with 11,522 deaths. You can read last week’s updates here. Editor’s note: These numbers are only updated Monday through Friday because D.C. Health and the Virginia Department of Health do not report metrics on weekends.
The Alexandria Health Department on Wednesday urged residents wear masks in public buildings, regardless of vaccination status, after the city reached “substantial” COVID-19 transmission rates Tuesday. The recommendation follows new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which updated its guidance on Tuesday recommending that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in parts of the country with “high” or “substantial” virus transmission. According to the CDC, “substantial” transmission is 50-100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, or is reporting a positivity rate between 8%-10%. The city’s seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 residents was 56.64 on Tuesday and 68.21 on Wednesday. Its positivity rate jumped from 13.3 Tuesday to 16.0 on Wednesday. Other jurisdictions around the DMV, like D.C., are playing a wait-and-see game before making any changes to masking or other restrictions, even as cases continue to steadily increase. The regional uptick in COVID-19 cases and the looming possibility of new mask mandates marks a departure from the optimistic trends throughout the spring and early summer, when COVID wards closed due to lack of patients and D.C. went a full two weeks without any deaths from disease. As of Wednesday, D.C.’s caseload was six times what it was at the beginning of the month with a seven-day average of 57 cases, up from an average of nine cases on July 1. Before the CDC released updated data on Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said during a press conference that officials are still reviewing case numbers and have not yet determined whether reinstating a mask mandate is necessary. “We are following public health guidance. [D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra] Nesbitt and her team continue to review where we are, and if we need to do anything differently and if we have a change of posture, we’ll communicate that,” Bowser said. “I have the authority with the existing emergency [order] to do that.” Bowser’s statement followed a statement from Nesbitt on Tuesday, prompted by the CDC’s new guidance. “We continue to learn about new variants, and these insights may require us to revisit other protective measures,” Nesbitt said in her statement. “Wearing a mask in indoor public settings provides an additional layer of protection for those who are fully vaccinated — and continues to be one of the key ways to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, namely young children.” Like D.C., Maryland and Virginia have seen cases increase, but state officials haven’t made any moves towards reinstating restrictions. Maryland reported a seven-day average of 314 cases as of Wednesday, up from 57 at the start of the month, although Maryland’s state-wide transmission level is moderate, according to the CDC. “Maryland is one of the most vaccinated states in the country, which blunts the impact of the Delta variant,” Mike Ricci, a spokesperson for Gov. Larry Hogan, said in an email.. “That said, we are very concerned about an increase in infections among the unvaccinated. Nearly everyone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 in Maryland over the last several weeks has been unvaccinated.” Montgomery Count’s positivity rate is about 1.7%. Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said county officials are concerned about the substantial transmission rates in surrounding and they’re monitoring new case counts, transmission rates, hospitalizations and vaccination rates. He said officials have the option to take several actions if the numbers don’t improve. “No one wants to have to implement restrictions of any kind,” Earl Stoddard, the county’s acting assistant chief administrative officer, said during a press conference Wednesday. “We’re hoping that the cases come back down … but at the same time we’re thinking about the students coming back to schools at the end of August [and] we need to have an environment that supports them being successful.” Prince George’s County reported 245 new COVID-19 cases during the middle of July, according to county health data. That is a 78% increase from July 4 and three straight weeks in June with 85 new cases or fewer per week. Virginia, meanwhile, reported a seven-day average of 746 new cases on Wednesday, compared to 176 on July 1. According to the CDC’s transmission rates, Fairfax County remains in the “moderate” transmission zone but Loudoun County moved into the “substantial” zone as of Wednesday afternoon. “At this time, the Virginia Department of Health is analyzing the CDC’s guidance,” a VDH spokesperson said in a statement. While vaccine breakthroughs are rare, they are happening in the DMV. Recent D.C. data on breakthrough infections shows that 200 fully vaccinated residents have contracted COVID-19 since January, accounting for about 1% of all COVID-19 infections. As of July 21, Maryland reported about 2,500 post vaccine infections out of the more than 3.5 million fully vaccinated residents. In Virginia, fully vaccinated residents account for less than 1% of total COVID-19 cases. Across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, about 50% of the total population is fully vaccinated.
The Washington Nationals game against the Philadelphia Phillies was postponed Wednesday night after four Nats players and eight staff members tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement Wednesday evening, MLB said the postponement is “to allow for continued testing and contact tracing involving members of the Nationals organization.” According to manager Davey Martinez, all but one the of the players was vaccinated. The Nats are slated to take on the Phillies in a double-header today, with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m. During Tuesday night’s game against the Phillies, shortstop Trea Turner was pulled off the field in the first inning after testing positive for COVID-19. Martinez said Turner was among the four, but did not identify the others. The team relaxed some of its coronavirus protocol in late May, with 85% of team members fully vaccinated. The delayed Wednesday game follows the Nats’ series loss to the Baltimore Orioles as they stare down a trade deadline, but a COVID-induced postponement is nothing new for the team. Their entire opening series against the Mets was postponed for the same reason in April.
Fairfax County Public Schools will require “universal masking” when students return to classrooms on Aug. 23. The school district said masks must be worn at all times by both staff and students indoors and on school buses, but are not required when eating or when outside during recess, gym or other activities. “Universal masking is a critical factor in ensuring all students can return to our buildings, especially when social distancing is not possible and not all our students are eligible yet for vaccinations,” FCPS said in a statement. “We will be regularly reviewing our masking practices in line with updates to national, state and local health recommendations.” The school district is also asking any staff or students who are eligible to vax up. “The most effective tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19 is widespread vaccination. If you and your child are eligible for vaccination and have not yet had your shot, visit one of our school vaccination clinics or make an appointment to be vaccinated as soon as possible,” the statement urged.
The U.S. House of Representatives reinstated its mask mandate as the delta variant emerges as the dominant COVID strain across the country and following the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Dr. Brian Monahan, the House attending physician, announced the move Tuesday. CDC on Tuesday recommended that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in areas with “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission rates should resume wearing masks indoors. “For all House Office Buildings, the Hall of the House and House Committee Meetings, wearing of a well-fitted, medical grade filtration face mask is required when an individual is in an interior space and other individuals are present,” Monahan wrote in a memo. House lawmakers and their staff will be required to wear face coverings while in the House chamber, except when members are being recognized and speaking on the floor. Lawmakers will not be allowed to enter the House chamber without a mask and those who fail to wear a mask in the House chamber will be subject to fines. Face coverings are also required for meetings in an “enclosed” House “controlled space.” Masks will be made available at entryways to the House chamber and provided at committee meetings for those who need one. “For the Congress, representing a collection of individuals traveling weekly from various risk areas (both high and low rates of disease transmission), all individuals should wear a well-fitted, medical-grade filtration mask (for example an ear loop surgical mask or a KN95 mask) when they are in an interior space,” Monahan wrote. It was just last month that the House dropped its mask mandate for those who are fully vaccinated, prompted by the decrease of community transmission and the increase in the rate of vaccinations. But last week, Monahan warned Congress about the delta variant while noting that “several vaccinated Congressional staff members” had tested positive. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office confirmed that same day that a fully vaccinated senior spokesperson in the speaker’s press office tested positive after coming into contact with a group of Texas state Democrats who traveled to D.C. to block restrictive voting legislation. At least six of those Texas lawmakers who say they are fully vaccinated tested positive. So-called breakthrough cases of COVID are rare in fully vaccinated individuals and getting vaccinated remains the best way to protect against hospitalization and death; 99.5% of deaths from COVID are among the unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
Washington Post employees must submit proof of vaccination before they are due to return to the office three days a week beginning Sept. 13. Publisher Fred Ryan told staff in a memo Tuesday that people with a medical or religious reason for not getting a vaccine must document it with human resources. He said new employees, contractors and guests who wish to enter the Post’s offices must also show proof of vaccination as well. “In considering the serious health issues and genuine safety concerns of so many Post employees, I believe the plan is the right one,” Ryan said. “Since our upcoming phase of return to the office for all employees at three days per week will be on September 13, I urge you to move quickly to arrange for vaccination or, if you cannot be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons, please reach out to our HR team.
Montgomery County Public Schools will require students, staff and visitors to wear masks when they return to classrooms this fall, regardless of vaccination status. The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a recommendation from administrators that continues the current mask policy when students return to schools five days a week Aug. 30. Face coverings will not be mandatory outdoors, but MCPS is strongly recommending them for unvaccinated individuals. Face coverings will also be required on school buses. Officials will revisit the policy as COVID-19 case numbers fluctuate, or as students younger than 12 become eligible for vaccines. Currently, only children 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated, a major factor in the decision to keep the mask requirement in place, said MCPS Interim Supt. Monifa McKnight. Between 45% and 52% of the district’s students is younger than 12 and not yet eligible for any of the approved vaccines, she added. The policy aligns with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. COVID-19 infections have been low in Montgomery County schools during in-person summer school, McKnight said. Of 26,000 students currently enrolled in summer learning, only 13 cases had been reported as of last Friday. School board members acknowledged that mask requirements have attracted scorn from some parents. The vote on face coverings took place after several parents bashed the policy in prerecorded public comments submitted to the board. Cara Boyle, whose son is starting kindergarten in MCPS this fall, called the policy an overreaction. “Forcing children to wear masks in a vain attempt to protect them from a statistically nonexistent threat will be damaging in many ways, both short and long term,” she said. “They’re actually muzzles, not masks,” added Milutin Djurickovic, who accused the board of having a political agenda. But the policy received support from other parents, including Jhumka Gupta, a public health scientist whose child is about to enter second grade. Gupta said universal masking provides a far safer environment for her daughter, who has an underlying medical condition. “This reduces stigma among those who will need to wear masks because of medical issues like my child, and also, it takes away [the] burden of trying to decipher who’s masked, and who’s not, so you can actually focus on school.” School board member Patricia O’Neill said the decision won’t be universally accepted, but that many children have accepted masks as a new — though hopefully temporary — way of life. “Masks have become politicized,” O’Neill said from under her face covering. “All of us are muffled, we’re hot. On occasion it’s more difficult breathing. But when I look at my 8- and 10-year old grandchildren, they’re more resilient and adaptable than we are as adults.”
Fairfax County Supervisors urged County Executive Bryan Hill to “thoroughly explore” a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all government employees as they return to in-person work this fall. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay made a motion during Tuesday’s board meeting directing Hill to also consider requiring face masks and weekly COVID-19 testing for employees who refuse the vaccine, with exemptions for religious and medical reasons. “As a large employer, and one that has successfully and consistently stressed to our residents the importance of being vaccinated, we must practice what we preach,” McKay said. Board members unanimously approved the motion. The county executive is appointed by the supervisors and administers county government functions. Fairfax County is Virginia’s largest municipality, with more than 12,000 government employees. More than half of county residents have been fully vaccinated and nearly 80% of adults have received at least one does. But the rapidly spreading delta variant has led to a surge of new cases in the county. If the county adopts a vaccine mandate, it would join New York City and California, which recently announced vaccine requirements for government employees. Workers who are not vaccinated must agree to weekly COVID-19 testing. “None of us wanted to be in this position, but as we are seeing, the delta variant is surging in unvaccinated communities across the country. As a county, we have to do all we can to protect our community and will continue to work to increase vaccination rates, including that of our employees,” McKay said. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a vaccine requirement for its healthcare workers, becoming the first major federal agency to do so. Frontline health care workers at the VA face termination if they are not fully vaccinated within eight weeks. Vaccine mandates across the country have faced challenges in court, but legal analysts say those challenges are unlikely to succeed, as long as they maintain exemptions for medical or religious reasons. The requirements are also facing pushback from labor unions, who say they must be subject to bargaining. Public employees in Fairfax County cannot bargain with their employers, but that could change. Statewide legislation that allowed local governments to bargain collectively with employees went into effect in May, and officials are working on a draft ordinance that would permit county workers to form labor agreements with government agencies.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam introduced two spending proposals for the state’s $4.3 billion share of federal coronavirus relief money, calling for investments in clean water projects and more than $860 million to replenish the commonwealth’s unemployment trust fund. Northam’s plan would inject $862 million into Virginia’s unemployment insurance trust fund, preventing tax increases on businesses and continuing to ensure that employers are not penalized for layoffs as a result of the pandemic. “Shoring up the commonwealth’s unemployment insurance trust fund is a smart investment that will prevent Virginia businesses from paying higher taxes and allow our economy to continue surging,” Northam said in a press release. “This continued investment will ensure the long-term viability of the trust fund and allow Virginia businesses to put their limited resources toward hiring workers rather than paying taxes,” Secretary of Labor Megan Healy added. Virginia’s unemployment insurance system distributed nearly $13 billion to more than 1.3 million residents between the start of the pandemic and May 2021. It claims to be among the nation’s top states for delivering insurance to eligible individuals, with approximately 85% of applicants getting their benefits within three weeks of submitting a claim. Northam has been incrementally rolling out his plans ahead of the special legislative session that begins next week, when lawmakers will vote on how to allocate the money. While the Democrat-controlled House and Senate must approve the spending, the administration has been crafting the spending plan in collaboration with legislators and budget committee staff.
Prince George’s County Public Schools will require students, teachers and staff to wear masks this fall. PGCPS said it is continuing its mask guidance that was in effect last school year. CEO Monica Goldson tweeted the updated guidance Monday. She said that about half of eligible students have received a COVID-19 vaccination. PGCPS is offering free vaccine clinics for students 12 and up. Dr. James Bridgers, Deputy Health Officer for Prince George’s County, was asked if the county is moving toward requiring children to wear masks in the fall. His response to that question was, “The current recommendation per CDC anyone aged two and older, it’s strongly recommended.” Monday afternoon, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles discussed the topic with staff Montgomery County Public Schools staff and is expected to make a recommendation to the Montgomery County Council today.. The county council also sits as the board of public health. The Montgomery County Board of Education is also expected to discuss the policy for mask wearing during its afternoon meeting today. As of Monday afternoon, there were no documents regarding the topic listed on the board’s online agenda. Howard County Public Schools said a decision has not yet been made. D.C. Public Schools has already announced that it will require masks be worn in the fall. In Virginia: Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County public schools will require masks for kindergarten through sixth grade. Prince William and Loudoun counties have not released detailed guidance yet.
Prince George’s County health officials continue to operate mobile clinics offering free COVID-19 vaccines to students ages 12 and up. This week, eligible students can receive vaccines free of charge from a mobile clinic at a different high school each day. Clinicc will be open from 1:30-5:30 p.m. each day. Parents or guardians are not required to accompany their child, but all students must present a completed consent form to be vaccinated. Forms can be download from the Prince George’s County Public Schools’ website. Currently, only the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has federal emergency use authorization for children ages 12-15. The schedule for the rest of the week includes Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School, 12650 Brooke Lane, Upper Marlboro today; Charles Herbert Flowers High School, 10001 Ardwick Ardmore Road, Springdale on Wednesday; Ernest E. Just Middle School, 1300 Campus Way North, Mitchelville and Laurel High School: 8000 Cherry Lane, Laurel on Thursday; and Bowie High School, 15200 Annapolis Road, Bowie and High Point High School, 3601 Powder Mill Road, Beltsville on Friday.
The Virginia Department of Health is partnering with the Washington Football Team to offer free vaccinations at the team’s training camp this week. The camp takes place at the Bon Secours Training Center, 2401 W Leigh St., Richmond from today through Saturday. There will also be several interactive events and educational resources for fans attending the training camp, including several events focused on honoring Virginia’s frontline and healthcare workers. Following a kickoff rally on opening day of training camp today, the team and VDH will welcome approximately 100 healthcare professionals for a day of fun during which participants will put their football skills to the test against team alumni. Attendees will enjoy refreshments and have access to the field to perform the same drills that NFL prospects complete before being drafted, including the 40-yard dash, cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, high jump and long jump to see how they compare to current players. Wednesday will celebrate frontline workers who have helped keep communities safe and functional throughout the pandemic. Approximately 100 frontline workers will enjoy a VIP experience during the first morning practice of this year’s training camp. In addition, all fans visiting training camp who show proof they are frontline workers will receive a 20% discount at the team store. On Wednesday through Saturday, VDH will hold a mobile vaccination site for anyone who has not received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Fans who get vaccinated while at training camp will have the opportunity to enter for a chance to win two free tickets and a parking pass to this year’s opening game against the Los Angeles Chargers. VDH will also provide a “safety zone” tent and handwashing stations on-site each day, so fans feel safe at training camp. “We are pleased to work with the Washington Football Team to help ensure that training camp is a fun, safe and educational environment for everyone in attendance,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver. “Plus, with our mobile vaccination site set up all week at training camp, this is another wonderful opportunity for anyone who is able to get vaccinated to do so. Your best protection from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated.” Washington Football Team training camp practice sessions are free to the public. Gates will be open, and fans will be welcome onsite from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Fans can register for free fan passes online. Once registered, fans will access their passes through the Washington Football Team mobile app.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first major federal agency to require healthcare workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations. The VA’s move came the same day nearly 60 leading medical and healthcare organizations issued a call for healthcare facilities to require their workers get vaccinated. No federal law stands in the way of employers requiring vaccinations, but like mask mandates, the issue has been politicized in a society that’s divided on matters of public health. “With more than 300 million doses administered in the United States and nearly 4 billion doses administered worldwide, we know the vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19,” Dr. Susan Bailey, immediate past president of the American Medical Association, said in a press release. “Increased vaccinations among healthcare personnel will not only reduce the spread of COVID-19 but also reduce the harmful toll this virus is taking within the healthcare workforce and those we are striving to serve.” Although vaccination among physicians is nearly universal — 96% according to an AMA survey — that’s not the case for many other people working at healthcare facilities. At the VA, vaccines will now be mandatory for certain medical personnel, including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and others who work in departmental facilities or provide direct care to veterans, said Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough. Employees have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated. “It’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the delta variant spreads across the country,” McDonough said in a press release. “Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promisel.” It was unclear what would happen to VA employees who refuse to be vaccinated. The agency said vaccination will be required “absent a medical or religious exemption.” The longstanding policy in the healthcare industry is for staff to stay up-to-date with vaccinations, such as annual flu shots. Exceptions for medical reasons include known allergies. Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said current federal laws do not prevent an employer from requiring employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has heavily promoted vaccinations as a way to slow the pandemic and save lives. However, the agency has not recommended that state or local officials, or employers, mandate vaccinations for their employees.
The Maryland Department of Health on Monday released rankings comparing COVID-19 staff vaccination rates at nursing homes in the state. Of the nearly three dozen nursing homes in Maryland with more than 90% of their staff vaccinated, more than half are in Montgomery County, including two of the four facilities with 100% of their staff members having at least one dose. Overall, there are 35 facilities in Maryland with at least 90% of their staff with at least one dose, according to the data. The four facilities with 100% staff vaccination rates are: Kensington Healthcare Center and Manor Care Health Services, Chevy Chase, Crescent Cities Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Riverdale, Prince George’s County and the Maryland Baptist Aged Home in Baltimore. “We have made tremendous progress vaccinating Marylanders who reside and work at nursing homes and congregate care facilities, but our work is not done,” said Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader in a news release announcing the rankings. “We are grateful for everyone who is vaccinated, and it is imperative that facilities encourage staff who are still unvaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible to ensure that they and our elderly loved ones they care for stay safe.” While nursing home workers became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine early in the vaccination rollout, concerns have been raised about nursing home staff refusing the vaccine. The “bottom 10” nursing homes in Maryland all have staff vaccination rates of less than 56%. Nine nursing homes — mostly in western Maryland — have staff vaccination rates of less than 50%. St. Joseph’s Ministries in Frederick County and Crofton Convalescent Center in Anne Arundel County both ended up on the bottom 10 list with just 54% and 55% of their staffs vaccinated, respectively. No nursing homes in Montgomery or Prince George’s counties finished in the bottom 10. However, three Montgomery County nursing homes and one Prince George’s County nursing home failed to report data as required by the state. Data on staff and resident vaccination rates at Maryland’s nursing homes are reported by each facility and updated online each week. Gov. Larry Hogan said in May he was requiring nursing homes to publicly report vaccination data.
The number of scheduled outbound passenger flights departing Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in the third quarter of 2021 is expected to be down 36% from the same period in 2019. That is among the biggest sustained downturns in the nation, but still a sign of incremental progress. Airlines for America, an industry trade group, on Sunday released a state-by-state comparison of the number of flights scheduled for the July through September, and how they compared to the same period during pre-pandemic 2019. The 36% shortfall Reagan National, which is counted as the lone D.C. airport even though it is in Virginia, was second only to New York state, which was down 37% in the comparison. Ohio, New Hampshire, Alaska, New Jersey and Rhode Island also are seeing drops of more than 30%. The figures represent flights, not the total number of seats, the percentage filled by passengers or the average fares being paid by those passengers, so it is only one snapshot of the airline industry’s recovery from COVID-19. Nine states – Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Maine, Mississippi and Colorado – are on track for more flights in the third quarter of 2021 than in 2019. Montana leads the list with a 25% increase in flights. Florida and Arizona passenger flights will be effectively on par with 2019, while all other states expect declines. Locally, Virginia airports — counting Washington Dulles International but not Reagan National — are expected to be down 17% from two years before, while Maryland airports are down 26%. According to Airlines for America data, Allegiant, Spirit, Frontier and JetBlue are expecting increases in total capacity during the third quarter compared to 2019, with other major carriers anticipating declines. Both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines anticipate a capacity drop of more than 27%.
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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.