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Local officials push coronavirus boosters and masks as omicron lands in Virginia

Sarah Linde of the Maryland Medical Reserve Corps gives Noah Starling, 7, his first coronavirus vaccination at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, Md., on Nov. 6. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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The first known case of the omicron variant in Virginia was found in a resident from the northwestern region of the state who had recently traveled domestically — but not internationally — officials said Thursday.

The latest troubling version of the coronavirus was first detected last month in South Africa and has since been flagged in 21 U.S. states and jurisdictions, including three cases in Maryland.

“We knew it was only a matter of time before we would record our first omicron infection in the Commonwealth,” state Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver said in a statement. “This drives home the challenge the COVID-19 virus presents to the world as the virus changes and mutates over time.”

With coronavirus case rates on the rise and omicron looming, Oliver and other public health officials are reemphasizing what they know works at stemming transmission: getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.

The message comes as vaccination rates among 5-to-11-year-olds have fallen since the vaccine was made available for that age group last month and only 1 in 4 fully vaccinated Americans have received booster shots, federal data shows.

The numbers are particularly troubling, public health officials say, because the region and most of the nation is experiencing a seasonal increase in new infections as the cold weather and winter holidays force people to gather indoors.

That expected bump comes on top of the news that the omicron variant is probably more transmissible than the delta variant, which remains the dominant version of the virus in the United States, and could evade the full protection of two doses of an mRNA vaccine or the one-dose Johnson and Johnson shot.

“We’ve known for more than a year how to prevent infection,” said Neil J. Sehgal, a public health researcher at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “Even if our vaccines are less effective against omicron, good masks are just as effective [as before]. Layered prevention works.”

First lab results show omicron has ‘much more extensive escape’ from antibodies than previous variants

Montgomery County, which has an indoor mask mandate tied to the infection rate, plans to lift it entirely when 85 percent of the population is vaccinated. County Executive Marc Elrich (D) on Wednesday said he would reconsider that based on omicron’s apparent ability to reinfect people.

Public health officials in Northern Virginia on Thursday issued a joint statement urging residents to take precautions during the “winter surge,” noting that many of the region’s 2,600 deaths and 9,000 hospitalizations occurred at this time last year. They reminded residents to stay home if sick, practice social distancing, avoid crowds and get tested if exposed to the virus.

D.C. had one of the strictest mask mandates in the nation before Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) lifted it about three weeks ago; only a handful of states still require face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status.

On Thursday, Bowser removed her mask only when speaking at the lectern indoors at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center for a gun violence prevention announcement, and reiterated that the city’s health department is asking residents to wear masks inside.

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New cases are up dramatically in the District, where the seven-day infection rate has more than doubled in the past week. Numbers are up nearly 50 percent in Virginia and nearly 40 percent Maryland compared with a week ago, according to The Washington Post Tracker.

Asked about the rising case rate, Bowser said D.C. is subject to the same dynamics influencing national trends, and that her administration’s focus remains on getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

“I don’t think anyone is surprised that case rates are going up … we won’t be immune to that,” she said. “[Vaccinations] include getting a booster when you are eligible … and our 5-to-11-year-olds have to get vaccinated. There’s a safe, free, reliable vaccine that is going to help us get on the other side of this pandemic.”

D.C., Maryland and Virginia rank among the top 10 states in the percentage of children 5 to 11 who have gotten vaccinated, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The District ranks fifth, with 27 percent of eligible children vaccinated. The vaccination rates for that age group in Virginia and Maryland are 27 and 24 percent, respectively.

‘This is a big deal for my family’: At-risk kids 5-11 get coronavirus vaccine first

The group’s vaccination rate has slowed considerably and at a sharper rate than researchers expected.

“That suggests that the very eager parents were indeed very eager and ran and got it as soon as they could and we’ve gotten into the much more difficult phase sooner than expected,” said Jennifer Kates, the foundation’s director of global health.

In a departure from the trend with adults and older children, Kaiser polling found little change in the number of parents who are hesitant or opposed to vaccinating their elementary school-age kids.

However, Kates said in communities where families are accustomed to accessing services such as meals and aftercare at school, like in the District, the response to school-based vaccination clinics has been robust.

Caroline McGregor and Darren Smith said taking their 7-year-old son, Will, to get vaccinated at his school, Garrison Elementary in Shaw, made sense because the building and playground already hosts birthday parties, workout classes and kickball leagues. The parents got their boosters there, too, as “Zootopia” played on screens and kids raced around with lollipops.

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

Although Will is at the peak age for what they called “needle phobia,” in an upbeat environment surrounded by friends and his principal, he merely made an unhappy face.

On the way home, they talked about how they had “maxed out” as a family.

“We didn’t leave anything on the table,” McGregor said she told her son. “We took all the steps to protect ourselves and our community.”

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.