The DC Region’s New Covid Normal: Infections Rising, Masks Optional

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Photos of the results of rapid tests on social networks. Overwhelmed texts from friends and family. Missed calls from contact tracers.

There are signs everywhere that coronavirus infections in DC, Maryland and Virginia are on the rise again, with new daily cases this week at least four times higher than at the end of March. But unlike previous waves, most state and local governments are avoiding introducing new regulations to stem the spread of the virus, sticking instead to recommendations for people to cover up and get vaccinated.

Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, two jurisdictions hardest hit by Covid-19 in the region, this week urged residents to wear masks indoors but issued no mandates. Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have not recommended any changes. Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, your school district will require masks to be worn in an individual classroom if at least three people test positive in that room.

Tracking Coronavirus Cases, Deaths, and Vaccines in DC, Maryland, and Virginia

“Everyone expects us to respond like we did in 2020, or like we did in 2021 and that’s not necessarily appropriate anymore,” Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) said, adding that the highly vaccinated city has no plans. . to enter a mask recommendation.

As governments try to balance the need to protect the vulnerable with the transition to a new phase of the pandemic, residents have been largely left to assess their individual risks and precautions, from wearing masks to testing. This calculation of risk has become more challenging as public health departments stop reporting COVID-19 data regularly and home testing has become more frequent, likely hiding the true number of victims of the virus. and its variants, experts say.

For immunocompromised residents and those with children too young to be vaccinated, the surge in new infections has meant retreating home, even as more employers are calling workers into offices.

“It certainly appears that local government officials everywhere have completely given up on the idea of ​​public health interventions to slow the spread,” said Eric Toner, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The District, which recently came under fire for failing to report daily Covid-19 data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday that residents do not need to wear masks as the city’s transmission levels are still rising. considered low by CDC standards.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said at a news conference Wednesday that this wave of infections was “lasting longer than expected.” That’s in part because people have changed the way they behave and perceive risk, said Earl Stoddard, deputy managing director.

“Risk assessment and risk trade-off: different people are doing different assessments,” Stoddard said.

The unequal toll of the omicron wave

The rise in infections is already likely higher than publicly reported across the region and likely to rise, experts say.

Tory Cross, a 29-year-old immunocompromised DC resident, said she was “heartbroken” to see DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) withdraw mask and vaccine requirements from businesses earlier this year, and you want the precautions back. She likes to visit cafes and eat with friends, but as cases increase, she mostly spends her weekends at home, making her own coffee and ordering.

Meanwhile, he watches uneasily as tourists, perhaps from parts of the country with low vaccination rates, flock to the city he has called home for almost a year without exploring much. For her, contradictory guidance amounts to a “choose your own adventure” pandemic.

“High-risk people should be able to participate in all elements of our society as fully as everyone else,” Cross said. “When it’s not safe for us to go to the pharmacy, or for immunocompromised kids to go to school, or for my fiancé to go to work, it really limits what we can do.”

Boris D. Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said increased transmission is an undeniable “struggle” for the immunocompromised, but added that he doesn’t think new interventions are necessary if hospitalizations don’t rise. drastically. .

“The reality is … a transition is happening,” Lushniak said, referring to comments Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser, made and reviewed last month about the country exiting a “pandemic phase.”

How fast the omicron BA.2 variant is spreading around the world

“What we’re doing is the right approach for now,” Lushniak said.

Daily infections in Baltimore have more than doubled in the last month; this week, the city recorded more than 400 new infections in two days, the highest levels since February. The city’s health commissioner, Letitia Dzirasa, on Tuesday urged residents to wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status, calling the guidance a “warning” at a news conference.

“The goal is not to get to a point where a mandate is necessary,” Dzirasa said in an interview, adding that if the city meets the CDC’s definition of a “high” level of community transmission: more than 20 hospitalizations daily of covid-19. for every 100,000 people, I would recommend reinstating the inner mask mandate.

Montgomery County and Baltimore City in Maryland, as well as most of Northern Virginia, have reached “medium” levels of community transmission, based in part on hospital admissions.

Dzirasa said he hopes residents heed his advice, but acknowledged that “social norms” around precautions like wearing masks and social distancing have changed.

“It gets more difficult the further we get from the restrictions,” he said.

Toner, the Johns Hopkins scientist, said he hopes more local governments will encourage indoor mask wearing, even if they don’t require it. There may be social pressure on people to remove their masks if others around them are not wearing them. A strongly worded notice like Dzirasa’s, Toner said, “could give [people] a little courage to keep that mask on.”

Even if more people go back to wearing masks, Toner noted, other pandemic-era precautions have begun to wane. The District stopped reporting daily case data on its own website two months ago and recently stopped sharing that data with the CDC.

In Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) made masks optional in schools within hours of taking office, his chief of staff, Jeff Goettman, last week issued a new telecommuting policy for employees of the executive power, as of July 5.

“Virginia is open for business again and we want to lead its way out of the pandemic in the workplace,” he said in an email to employees.

The policy says agency heads must approve telecommuting one day a week, cabinet secretaries two days a week, and the chief of staff three days a week or more.

In Virginia, a spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that state health department commissioner Colin Greene had tested positive for the virus.

Karina Elwood, Nicole Asbury, Antonio Olivo, and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.

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