Covid cases increase in DC, Maryland and Virginia with wave BA.2

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In a pattern that has been repeating for more than two years, coronavirus cases are rising again in the DC area and across the country, after a brief respite with some of the lowest virus circulation rates in the pandemic.

What is different this time is that for many residents it is more difficult to monitor the spread of the virus.

Since the relaxation of mask mandates and other restrictions earlier this year, local government leaders have told residents that those trying to avoid the virus should monitor public health data to assess personal risk. But the region’s health departments are releasing far less information to the public than they routinely did until this winter. Even the health services don’t know as much now about who has tested positive for the virus, as many people can now test themselves at home.

“We’re asking you to make your own risk decisions, but we’re not giving you the tools to do so,” said Neil J. Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy at the University of Maryland. “…The sad reality is that there is no longer a good set of metrics you can look at to gauge your risk today, as opposed to last week or two weeks ago. What we have fact is that we force people to trust their intuition.

Tracking coronavirus cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia

As of Thursday morning, the seven-day average had risen 54% in the district over the past week, 43% in Maryland and 27% in Virginia.

These rates, driven by the BA.2 sub-variant of omicron, are well below the staggering workloads caused by the earlier omicron variant that hit the region hard in December and January. But public health experts say they expect BA.2 to continue to propel a rise in cases.

Some local universities, including American and George Washington, have reinstated mask requirements which they dropped when the first wave of omicron subsided. Philadelphia announced this week that its citywide indoor masking mandate would return, prompting DC-area officials to wonder if their jurisdictions would do the same. So far, none have.

US universities and GW among latest campuses to reinstate masks

Montgomery County officials said Wednesday they were not considering reinstating a warrant. Acting health officer James Bridgers said he expects cases to peak and plateau in the highly vaccinated county without causing a significant increase in hospitalizations or deaths, although the officials be prepared to change course quickly, especially if case rates rise after schools return from spring break.

“We’re concerned,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said, “because at some point you can’t let this thing get out of control.”

Some officials are sick with the virus themselves, having avoided it for the first two years.

DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Kenyan Councilman R. McDuffie (D) caught the virus earlier this month; both said their symptoms were mild. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D) called his own symptoms “uncomfortable but manageable.”

When Arlington County Supervisor Matt de Ferranti (D) fell ill, he sent a letter to residents, noting a sharp rise in cases in Arlington and urging people to wear masks and get vaccinated. “We know, and I can tell you firsthand, that you don’t want to catch Covid,” he wrote.

Sehgal said he urges his neighbors and students to pay attention to this anecdotal evidence of a spike in cases. “Think about your social circle, how many people in your network are infected right now or have been infected in the last week,” he said.

Covid cases rise in North East as BA.2 omicron subvariant takes hold

The district, like many jurisdictions, no longer announces the number of new cases reported each day, and it has also stopped reporting much of the abundant data it used to publish on hospitalizations and other measures. Its website now offers a much smaller set of metrics, including the weekly case rate per 100,000 population. That number has been increasing weekly for the past month, from 51 cases the week of March 6 to 204 cases the week of April 3, the most recent reported.

“How does it help me today, two weeks later, to know what happened in March in the District? It’s history,” Sehgal said. “All I can tell you for sure is that we are three times worse today than at the start of the month. But that seven-day average number of cases no longer seems accurate to me,” he added, due to the prevalence of home testing that is never reported to the government.

Officials say they still have ways to gauge their levels of community transmission. In Montgomery, for example, the health department asks doctors to report positive test results from patients who use home kits, and the county closely monitors data from places like schools and homes. retirement who regularly perform PCR tests. As of this week, outbreaks in those gathering places have not increased significantly, said county emergency preparedness officer Sean O’Donnell.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve never had the full picture,” O’Donnell said at a press conference Wednesday. When covid-19 first arrived, he noted, testing was not readily available. The virus could be spreading asymptomatically, suggesting that there were large groups of people carrying it and spreading it unwittingly. And in late 2021, a cyberattack crippled Maryland’s covid-19 data reporting system for weeks.

“There have always been more cases than what our data represents,” O’Donnell said. “The question now is how far has this drifted with the very wide spread of home testing?”

Because people often use PCR tests to confirm the results of a home test, an increase in PCR test positivity would always signal an increase in community transmission, said Earl Stoddard, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer.

Stoddard added that there are other metrics and forms of monitoring that hint at case rates, like the number of students absent from school or the number of county employees calling in sick.

“People reacting to a test result is far more important than having the test results on the back,” he said.

Crystal Watson, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, reported good news: “While we know we’re missing a lot of cases, we’re not seeing a huge increase in hospitalizations.”

Watson noted a number of factors that could cause the current phase driven by BA.2 to take a different course than the omicron wave of winter.

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On the one hand, omicron has inspired some to get vaccinated or given a booster shot, which means people are now better protected. And omicron has infected so many people – some experts estimate more than half of the US population has caught it – that there is more natural immunity as well, although immunity can expire after only 90 days. On top of that, Watson noted, warm weather means people are doing more outdoor activities, which lowers the risk of getting sick.

But parts of the DC region have rolled out increased coronavirus restrictions, including vaccine requirements for eating in restaurants, to combat omicron for the first time. There was no such mobilization against BA.2, which could allow the sub-variant to spread more effectively in public places.

“We just don’t have those mitigations in place like we did in the winter,” Watson said. She praised Philadelphia’s proactive relaunch of its mask mandate.

“I personally think that’s a good way to go because then you’re being preemptive, you’re not waiting for it to be so bad that it really affects hospitals,” she said.

Watson said Americans are not in an endless cycle of variant after variant that requires masking and social distancing: increasing immunity over time, especially as more of the world is vaccinated, will reduce the impact of the coronavirus.

But regardless, she and Sehgal both said they might still wear masks in some settings during the winter flu season to avoid getting sick.

Teo Armus contributed to this report.

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