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Covid is rising in the DMV as people gather for the holidays

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As a very chilly Christmas approaches, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are up across much of the Washington region, raising concerns that the virus might spread rapidly after people gather indoors to celebrate and escape frigid temperatures this weekend.

On Thursday evening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elevated the coronavirus community levels to medium in D.C., Alexandria, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. And even in surrounding counties with low community levels — like Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia — case numbers and hospitalizations have been trending up.

The virus finally caught up with D.C. Council member-elect Matt Frumin, who on Thursday tested positive for the first time since the pandemic arrived nearly three years ago.

“Today I’m hearing about how much [covid] is out there — it’s enormous,” he said. “I wish this headache was over but it isn’t.”

Frumin said he is isolating with mild cold-like symptoms and will probably miss out on plans to be with his adult children this week, who are visiting for the holidays. But his biggest concern is that he may have unintentionally passed the virus to others before he started feeling ill, despite his efforts to be safe by getting boosted and checking his temperature every day before interacting with the public.

“If you feel even an inkling that you might be sick, get out there and get tested,” he said.

Faced with rising case numbers and hospitals already inundated with flu and RSV patients, local officials are encouraging residents to test before gathering, consider wearing masks in crowded public spaces and practice good hygiene by washing hands frequently and covering coughs and sneezes. And if you feel sick, even on Christmas Day, stay at home.

“Better to miss out on something than get a loved one seriously ill,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said on Wednesday, after the county’s covid community level crossed the threshold into medium.

The full picture of how the coronavirus is spreading within the community is hard to gauge, in part because many people are testing at home and not reporting the results. Local governments across the country are also reporting data less often — Montgomery County was the only jurisdiction in the region to publicly update its community level to medium before the CDC published its analysis on Thursday night.

Case rates across the region are not quite as high as at this time last year when the first omicron variant began spreading through the United States, though they are higher than at many other points during the pandemic. Still, the CDC recommends those at high risk of severe illness from covid-19 wear masks in indoor public spaces when community levels cross into medium, and advises people to test before meeting with a high-risk person and wear a high-quality mask in their presence.

Holiday celebrations and pandemic fatigue stand in the way of some of the most effective precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Even as coronavirus metrics have worsened in recent weeks, officials across the region have left masking and other risk management strategies up to personal choice. Booster vaccination rates have lagged despite widespread embrace of the primary vaccine series across the region. And few people seem eager to don masks and keep socially distant at the start of a third pandemic winter.

Few residents received a bivalent booster this fall, despite vaccination rates that remain far higher than the national average. Even in Montgomery County, which boasts an overall vaccination rate of 93 percent, only 31 percent of eligible residents have received the updated booster that also protects against the omicron variants, according to CDC data. Other jurisdictions in the region have even lower booster uptake, with only 17 percent of residents in Prince George’s County, 18 percent in Loudoun County, 23 percent in Fairfax County and 27 percent in D.C. receiving an updated booster shot.

“Boost, mask, wash, test — that’s what we’re recommending,” Elrich said. “These four steps still work.”

As the year winds to a close, coronavirus clinics offering tests, vaccination boosters and flu shots will be open across the region. The District runs eight covid-related centers, one in each ward.

The Montgomery County Health Department will keep three testing and vaccination clinics open on Dec. 26 and Jan. 2, so that residents who feel ill can get tested, but the clinics will not be open on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

Prince George’s County also publishes a map of the three county-run testing sites and dozens of privately run sites.

Several free PCR testing sites in Alexandria will shutter at the end of the week, but free tests are still offered at neighborhood clinics and free rapid tests are still available through the public library. Alexandria reported a seven-day average of 210 new daily cases this week.

Cases have also been ticking up in Fairfax County, where the seven-day average of new daily cases hit 271 on Friday. Covid-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise in Virginia and Maryland. And across the region, hospitals have been struggling to keep up with the number of patients seeking treatment for respiratory infections in recent weeks, with a growing number of people showing up to the emergency room seeking treatment for covid.

Over the past few months, most of the patients who tested positive for the coronavirus at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda were seeking treatment for other medical reasons and were asymptomatic for covid. But that has changed recently, said Eric Dobkin, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer.

“What we’re seeing now is at least half of the patients that are in the hospital that are covid positive are actually here because of symptoms of covid or covid-type complications,” he said.

Dobkin expects the number of patients with covid will not reach previous surge levels but he pleaded for people to continue to take it seriously and take appropriate steps to prevent spread.

“People have to be wearing masks. They have to keep social distancing and please, please, keep up to date with vaccinations,” he said. “I mean, I can’t stress that more.”

Dobkin said he understood that people have grown tired of having to take precautions, but he warned that there is still much unknown about covid.

“The consequences of being infected with covid, or influenza for that matter, are not necessarily benign,” he said.

Covid cases continue to rise at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, and covid and flu numbers are expected to increase following the holidays, said Pouya Gharahdaghi, the hospital’s assistant medical director and an emergency room physician. He recommends that those who can get vaccinated for the coronavirus and flu do so to lessen the impact of the illnesses.

“Everyone’s tired of wearing a mask. I don’t blame them,” Gharahdaghi said. “That being said, in times that you know there’s going to be an uptick, with people from across the country coming together to visit family and bringing the virus with them, if you can take precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones, it’s a good idea to do so.”

Why mask mandates aren’t coming back even though covid is

Residents preoccupied Wednesday afternoon with holiday shopping and the looming storm showed little sign of the pandemic panic that gripped the region for two previous winters. Instead, masks are optional in most businesses, and many choose to go without them.

Josh Clapper described a surreal experience of reading an article contemplating the return of more widespread masking while he was riding a Metro train, unmasked like all the passengers around him. He imagined phones pinging with “tri-demic” alerts any minute.

“People want this to be a normal holiday season. They want that really badly,” said Clapper, who is in the military and recently returned from Japan where masking was universal.

Although his family isn’t gathering in a big group this year for other reasons, he said in past years they discussed everyone’s vaccine status to make sure they were all protected. Like Clapper, few people entering the Metro station in Dupont Circle were masked.

Serena Lo, a federal government employee, said she was one of maybe 15 percent of riders in her Metro train car wearing a mask, which she removed by the time the extra-long escalator delivered her to the street level.

“I am constantly still thinking about it, but it is hard when you see hardly anyone wearing masks anymore,” she said.

She worries about her 80-year-old mother who grocery shops without a mask but has remained covid-free throughout the pandemic. Lo credits being up-to-date on her vaccines with feeling only flu-like symptoms when she contracted the coronavirus in July.

However, she worried that because the vaccines offer protection from severe illness, but not total protection from infection, people will be dissuaded from getting the updated booster.

“Some people might logic through that and think, ‘What’s the point?’” she said.

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