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DC area health officials recommend precautions as covid cases rise

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With coronavirus cases in the DC area on a gradual slope and waning vaccine immunity, some public health officials are recommending residents consider wearing high-quality masks, but have no plans to. reinstating 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 tracker. Some counties in the region are moving from low to medium with occasional high days, reflecting the variable nature of the pandemic.

The jump in cases comes mainly from of the highly transmissible offshoot of the omicron, BA.5, which in recent weeks has become the dominant strain in the United States, driving a wave of cases across the country.

In DC, state epidemiologist Anil Mangla said authorities have noticed an increase in cases over the past week, shifting the city between low and medium levels of transmission.

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DC public health officials have not demanded that people are wearing masks again, deferring to CDC guidelines, which indicate that immunocompromised and at-risk people may want to talk to their health care provider about masking indoors when community spread reaches a average level.

“It has been two years and I still wear my mask, I keep my distance. And knock on wood, I don’t have covid. It works,” Mangla said in an interview on Friday, calling the practice “epidemiology 101.”

Virginia and Maryland health departments continue to update their covid data daily and DC Health updates weekly on Wednesdays, officials said — though public health officials believe the number of cases are underreported as more people take home coronavirus tests.

“We don’t think the level of covid in the community has gone down,” said David Goodfriend, chief health officer at Loudun County.

Health officials in Montgomery County has acknowledged the rise in cases, urging residents to take precautions and recommending indoor masking for everyone, regardless of vaccination status – but without requiring them.

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“The good news is that those who have injections in the majority of cases do not have to deal with serious episodes of the disease,” county executive Marc Elrich (D) told a conference on Wednesday. hurry. “The bad news is that many people have let their guard down and are not taking seriously how devastating covid is. can still be in some cases, or the effects of a long covid.

Acting County Health worker James Bridgers said there are no public health recommendations to reinstate a mask mandate, but the county will continue to monitor case numbers and make any necessary adjustments.

“If we fall below this threshold of 200 cases per 1,000, we will modify our narrative information accordingly. It’s an additive process,” Bridgers said. “Covid is here and we need to continue to shape our behavior accordingly as our community levels go from low, medium to high.”

Prince George’s County, which was among the hardest hit jurisdictions in the region, continued to see an average level of community transmission this week. Officials said they would continue to monitor cases and urged residents to stay up to date on vaccines and continue to follow CDC guidelines.

“COVID-19 will most likely be with us for some time and so we need to learn to live with it,” Prince George’s County Health Department spokesman George Lettis said in an email. “While government COVID mandates are no longer in place – because residents have many tools to stay safe and healthy – the Department of Health and county government have always taken a more cautious approach in our pandemic decision making. »

Since about mid-June, Virginia public health officials have been tracking a gradual increase in coronavirus cases, fueled by BA.5 — the “most appropriate variant” according to Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist. Virginia Department of Health.

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“He has more ability to evade immunity from both past infections and vaccination, which leads to an increase in cases,” Peake said in a phone interview on Friday, adding that hospitalizations were also gradually increasing. .

Peake encouraged everyone who is eligible to receive a second booster shot, although public health officials are still studying their effectiveness against the dominant variants.

Hospitalizations for covid-19 in Northern Virginia have steadily increased since late June to a weekly average of 180 on Friday, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Typically, an increase in hospitalizations follows an increase in cases.

Gabor Kelen, director of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said the hospital has seen a recent spike in admissions of coronavirus cases, bringing the number to around 160 systemwide, from a low of around 40 in mid-April.

Although many people in the community have some protection against serious illness and death from previous infection and vaccination, he pointed out that “people with comorbidities and other conditions continue to have trouble.”

Death is a lagging indicator, but Kelen said, “We haven’t lost a covid patient in the ER, in ages,” compared to the frequent deaths in the early stages of the pandemic. Nationally, data shows that hundreds of people are still succumbing to the virus daily.

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 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 influenza transmission, she and her colleagues measure the amount of virus in exhaled breath, and their findings help explain why the new variants are more contagious in addition to their availability to evade immunity, a she declared.

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“All the things we’ve done are even more important now,” Coleman said in an interview Thursday. “Infections are increasing and hospitalizations are increasing. So not only does the current vaccine effectiveness decrease with these variants, but they are more transmissible. If you really want to escape emissions, you really need to wear a high-quality mask.”

Some places in the country are reacting to the increase in the number of cases by increasing precautions; Los Angeles County, which was considering reinstating an indoor mask mandate, dropped the idea on Thursday as cases dwindled.

But closer to home, some public health officials are easing precautions. Last month, the Virginia Department of Health relaxed quarantine guidelines for people exposed to the coronavirus. People who have been vaccinated or recovered from covid-19 within the past six months should not be quarantined, according to state guidelines, even though the CDC says post-infection immunity lasts half of what state guidelines reflect.

Arlington County’s local coronavirus emergency declaration will end Aug. 15, officially 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.

Emergency declarations like Arlington’s had allowed local government agencies to seamlessly transition from in-person to virtual operations early in the pandemic. In Arlington, it allowed county council members to meet on Zoom and gave residents the ability to make public comments virtually — even after lawmakers returned to their chambers in person last year.

The city of Alexandria’s pandemic emergency declaration expired on June 30.

“It’s definitely an important tool. It gave us a lot of flexibility,” Arlington County spokesman Ryan Hudson said. “At this point, we have learned to live with this pandemic. He’s obviously going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

Teo Armus and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.