With coronavirus cases in the D.C. region on a gradual incline and vaccine immunity waning, some public health officials recommend residents consider wearing high-quality masks, but have no plans to reinstate mandates as people learn to live and work amid the virus.
Most counties and cities in the region reported a medium level of community spread of the coronavirus this week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker. Some counties in the region are toggling from low to medium with the occasional day at a high level, reflecting the variable nature of the pandemic.
The jump in cases stems mainly from the highly transmissible omicron offshoot, BA.5, which, in recent weeks, has become the dominant strain in the United States driving a wave of cases across the country.
In D.C., State Epidemiologist Anil Mangla said officials noticed an uptick in cases in the past week, moving the city between low and medium levels of transmission.
D.C. public health officials have not mandated that people wear masks again, instead deferring to CDC guidance, which says immunocompromised and at-risk people may want to talk to their health-care provider about indoor masking when community spread reaches a medium level.
“It’s been two years and I still wear my mask, I keep my distance. And touch wood, I don’t have covid. It works,” Mangla said in an interview Friday, calling the practice “epidemiology 101.”
Virginia and Maryland health departments continue to update their covid data daily and D.C. Health updates weekly on Wednesdays, officials said — although public health officials believe the number of cases is underreported as more people take at-home coronavirus tests.
“We do not believe the level of covid in the community has decreased,” said David Goodfriend, health director in Loudoun County.
Health officials in Montgomery County acknowledged the uptick in cases, urging residents to take precautions and recommending masking indoors for everyone, regardless of vaccination status — but not requiring them.
“The good news is that those with shots in the majority of cases are kept from having to deal with serious bouts of the disease,” County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said in a news conference Wednesday. “The bad news is that many people have let their guard down and they’re not taking seriously how devastating covid can still be in some cases, or the effects of long covid.”
Acting County Health Officer James Bridgers said there was no public health recommendation to reinstate a mask mandate, but the county would continue to monitor the case figures and make adjustments as needed.
“Should we fall below that 200 cases per 1,000 threshold we will change our narrative information accordingly. This is an additive process,” Bridgers said. “Covid is here and we need to continue to shape our behavior accordingly as our community levels change from low, medium to high.”
Prince George’s County, which was among the hardest-hit jurisdictions in the region, continued to record a medium level of community transmission this week. Officials said they will continue to monitor cases and urged residents to stay up to date on vaccines and continue to follow CDC guidance.
“COVID-19 will most likely be with us for a while and so we have to learn to live with it,” Prince George’s County Health Department spokesman George Lettis said in an email. “While government COVID mandates are not in place anymore — because residents have numerous tools to stay safe and healthy — the Health Department and County Government had always taken a more cautious approach to our pandemic decision-making.”
Since about mid-June, Virginia public health officials have tracked a gradual rise in coronavirus cases, fueled by BA.5 — the “fittest variant” according to Lilian Peake, the Virginia Department of Health state epidemiologist.
“It does have more ability to evade immunity both from past infection and vaccination so that is leading to an increase in cases,” Peake said in a phone interview Friday, adding that hospitalizations are also rising gradually.
Peake encouraged everyone who is eligible to get second booster shots, although public health officials are still studying their effectiveness against the dominant variants.
Hospitalizations for covid-19 in Northern Virginia have steadily gone up since late June to a weekly average of 180 as of Friday, according to the Virginia health department. Generally, an increase in hospitalizations follows a surge in cases.
Gabor Kelen, director of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said the hospital has seen a recent increase in coronavirus case admissions, bringing the number up to about 160 systemwide from a low of about 40 in mid-April.
Although many people in the community have some protection from severe disease and death due to previous infection and vaccination, he stressed that “people with comorbidities and other conditions continue to get into trouble.”
Death is a lagging indicator, but Kelen said, “We haven’t lost a covid patient in the ER, in like forever,” compared to frequent deaths in earlier stages of the pandemic. Nationally, data show, hundreds of people are still succumbing daily to the virus.
Kristen K. Coleman, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, studies the viral load emitted by people infected with the coronavirus, and has found that people with the omicron variant are more likely to shed large amounts of the virus, compared to those with earlier strains.
Using the Gesundheit ll, a machine developed to measure flu transmission, she and her colleagues measure the amount of the virus in exhaled breath, and their findings help explain why new variants are more contagious in addition to their availability to evade immunity, she said.
“All of the things we have been doing are even more important now,” Coleman said in an interview Thursday. “Infections are rising and hospitalizations are rising. So not only is the current vaccine efficacy waning with these variants, they are more transmissible. If you really want to evade emission, you really need to wear a high-quality mask.”
Some places nationwide are responding to the increases in cases by ramping up precautions; Los Angeles County, which considered reinstating an indoor mask mandate, abandoned the idea Thursday as cases dropped.
But closer to home, some public health officials are easing precautions. The Virginia Department of Health last month loosened quarantine guidelines for people who are exposed to the coronavirus. Individuals who are vaccinated or recovered from covid-19 within the last six months do not have to quarantine, under the state’s guidelines, even as the CDC says post-infection immunity lasts half as long as the state guidelines reflect.
Arlington County’s local coronavirus emergency declaration will sunset on Aug. 15, formally lifting a measure that allowed virtual government meetings for more than two years and gave restaurants a fast-track to set up temporary outdoor seating areas.
Emergency declarations like the one in Arlington had allowed local government bodies to seamlessly shift from in-person to virtual operations at the start of the pandemic. In Arlington, it allowed County Board members to meet over Zoom and gave residents the chance to offer public comment virtually — even after lawmakers returned to their in-person chamber last year.
Alexandria city’s pandemic emergency declaration expired on June 30.
“It’s definitely been an important tool. It gave us a lot of that flexibility,” Arlington County spokesman Ryan Hudson said. “At this point, we have learned to live with this pandemic. It’s obviously going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”
Teo Armus and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.