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RISING VIRUS RATES IN D.C., ALEXANDRIA HAVE OFFICIALS CONSIDERING MASK MANDATES ANEW

RISING VIRUS RATES IN D.C., ALEXANDRIA HAVE OFFICIALS CONSIDERING MASK MANDATES ANEW

WASHINGTON POST – Officials in the Washington region are considering reinstating indoor mask mandates for vaccinated people following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifying D.C., Alexandria and Loudoun County as having substantial community transmission of the coronavirus.

Alexandria released guidance Wednesdayurging vaccinated people to wear masks indoors; Loudoun County has yet to update its guidance. And D.C. officials said they are reviewing the updated federal recommendations.

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“Similar to trends across the nation, the District of Columbia has experienced a four-fold increase in its daily case rate since the beginning of July,” D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said in a statement. “We continue to learn about new variants, and these insights may require us to revisit other protective measures.”

Those three jurisdictions are the only ones in the immediate region that the CDC classified as having substantial spread of the virus. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland are classified as moderate. In Virginia, Fairfax and Arlington counties are classified as moderate; Falls Church is classified as low.

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The seven-day average of new cases in the region climbed to 1,119 on Wednesday — the highest it has been since mid-May. The spread of the aggressive delta variant and officials’ relaxation of pandemic restrictions before enough people were vaccinated is to blame for the increase, said Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

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“If you look at D.C., Maryland and Virginia, we’ve seen roughly a 200 percent increase in cases in the past two weeks and that is alarming,” Sehgal said. “We know that cases are climbing and so it would be reasonable for local leaders to adopt a mask mandate now before cases continue and we end up in a substantial or high transmission area.”

State officials have yet to release updated statewide guidance in part because the CDC’s guidance is county-based, Sehgal said. While many Virginia counties in the metro area aren’t classified as substantial or high, for example, counties in the southern part of the state — where vaccination rates are lower — are.

Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), said state officials are “thoroughly reviewing” the new recommendations.

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“The governor has taken a nuanced and data-driven approach throughout this pandemic — which is why Virginia has among the nation’s lowest total covid-19 cases and death rates,” Yarmosky said. “As he has said repeatedly, the only way to end this pandemic is for everyone to get vaccinated.”

Maryland state officials have not discussed plans to reimpose restrictions, state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said. “The reality is we have not changed course, we’ve been full speed ahead. Our focus is getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” he said.

County and city officials are also considering changes as virus numbers climb. Officials in Montgomery — Maryland’s most populous county — are considering reinstating indoor face-covering requirements, building capacity limits and travel advisories, Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles said Wednesday in a weekly covid-19 briefing.

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“We don’t want to have to do any of this; we want to continue to push forward and move forward and open things up, but again make sure we do it as safely as possible,” Gayles said.

The county will continue monitoring case numbers and positivity and vaccination rates in deciding whether to reinstate restrictions and mandates. Health officials also said they are hopeful that the county’s high vaccination rates will help keep cases low and head off the need for additional restrictions.

Officials in Prince George’s are taking a similar approach.

“Our health officials will continue to monitor the County’s COVID-19 case data and update residents if our COVID-spread level increases to the point where mask policies should be modified to protect the health and safety of every Prince Georgian,” George Askew, who is leading the county’s covid-19 response, said in a statement.

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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said this week that he would not hesitate to reimpose restrictions or masking requirements in that city, where transmission is classified as moderate, “when and if the time comes from a public health and public safety standpoint. . . . We’re hopeful that we don’t get to that point, but I will not blink in having to do that to save the lives of Baltimoreans.”

School officials in Virginia, Prince George’s and Montgomery have announced that they are requiring students, teachers and staff at K-12 schools to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. Those announcements put those areas in line with the CDC’s recommendation.

It remains to be seen how much more the virus will spread before schools reopen in the fall, but the forecast is not good, ­Sehgal said.

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Coronaviruses are typically transmitted less readily in the summer months, Sehgal noted.

“If we’re surging now in the middle of July, how potentially bad could this, or would this, be in unvaccinated people come winter months?” he said.

Meanwhile, officials continued to urge people to get the shots. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday warned unvaccinated Marylanders that they remain at high risk of contracting covid-19 as the delta variant spreads.

“If you have been vaccinated, you’re safe and we thank you for doing your part,” Hogan said at the opening of the state Board of Public Works hearing. Hogan said the vaccines have been effective, noting that only 0.07 percent of the new covid-19 cases in Maryland over the past seven months are among vaccinated residents.

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Rachel Chason, Laura Vozzella and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.  

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