D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Friday said that reinstating the District’s indoor mask mandate is “on the table,” among other measures, as the city sees its highest-ever daily numbers of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.
“What is also different is this variant, omicron, and its transmissibility,” Bowser said. “I expect that’s going to warrant some changes in course for us around our emergency response.”
D.C. on Friday reported 844 new coronavirus cases — the highest single-day total at any point in the pandemic, beating the previous day’s record of 508 new cases. The seven-day average of new cases in the city reached 360 Friday — by far the highest average since the pandemic began in March 2020. Hospitalizations in the District have increased as well, with the seven-day average at 154 on Friday, nearly double what it was at the beginning of the month.
The rise in cases can be seen throughout the region. Total cases in Virginia passed the 1 million mark earlier this week, and the seven-day average of new cases there has nearly doubled since the beginning of the month. Maryland, which has not reported cases for two weeks after a cyberattack that affected its health department, has seen hospitalizations there sharply rise, triggering potential surge capacity measures.
Area schools have also been responding to the increases, with some reducing extracurriculars or transitioning to virtual learning because of outbreaks.
Earlier this month, Bowser issued an advisory urging all people to mask up in indoor public settings, just weeks after scaling back the city’s indoor mask mandate. But some residents and local legislators have called on her to reimpose the mandate amid concerns about the latest variant; a plea that was echoed by several D.C. Council members on a weekly call with her administration Friday morning.
Among those who expressed concern was Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who did not appear on the call but announced on social media moments before it started that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Our kids and [families] are not safe,” wrote White, who represents some of the city’s neighborhoods with the lowest rates of vaccination and is also running for mayor. “We need to shut it back down and should not be unmasking. It’s Flu season and the holiday season.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) on Thursday also called on Bowser to reimpose the indoor mask mandate, tweeting that the city’s approach to the pandemic “must rely on the best available science and data."
Council members on Friday also asked about the availability of rapid antigen coronavirus tests during the holiday season and whether they could be made free to the public, particularly in high-risk communities — similar to Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, which unveiled similar programs in recent weeks.
Patrick Ashley, senior deputy director at D.C. Health, said the city had 20,000 of these tests on hand, which are mainly being used in congregate care facilities like nursing homes, jails and public shelters, and was working to secure more before they’re widely distributed.
Ashley said officials would offer more details soon about how the public can access them. In the meantime, Bowser said Friday that she would confer with her administration about possible interventions to slow the spread.
“As we have said throughout this pandemic, as it evolves, we evolve,” Bowser said. She noted that her staff is considering questions around testing, vaccine access and outbreaks in city schools, “which is probably on the top of our list.”
Schools around the region have seen an uptick in confirmed coronavirus cases on their campuses after Thanksgiving, forcing some to move to virtual classes or start an early holiday break. Prince George’s County Public Schools announced Friday they will move to virtual instruction beginning next week because of a surge in coronavirus cases. After winter break, students will continue to learn virtually until Jan. 14.
Monica Goldson, the chief executive for Prince George’s County Schools, said Friday that the “stark rise” in cases guided the decision to return to virtual learning in the county. It marks the first major shift of the school year to remote learning of a large public school in the D.C. area.
Montgomery County’s school system announced Friday it would suspend its in-person activities and events beginning Monday. While in-person instruction will go on, they will halt in-person, nonathletic extracurricular activities outside the school day through Jan. 7. Athletic practices and games can continue into next week, but during the winter break, from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2, games will be canceled, with optional practices allowed.
While Northern Virginia school systems have canceled or postponed some athletic events because of concerns about coronavirus exposure, they have yet to close schools or enact major restrictions. A spokeswoman for Fairfax County Public Schools, the state’s largest school system, said Friday that officials there “are watching our numbers closely but are holding steady at this point.”
In the District, schools have pulled grade levels out to quarantine one at a time. D.C. Public Schools told Council members in a statement Friday they’ve closely been monitoring the spread of the coronavirus. Recently, Whittier Elementary School, in Northwest Washington’s Brightwood neighborhood, moved to virtual instruction until Dec. 22, after 14 coronavirus cases were reported, dating back to Dec. 9.
“We’re just seeing right now that this a direct impact of the citywide, regional and national increases of covid-19 in our communities, likely due to the post-holiday surge that health officials warned us about,” DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in an interview Wednesday.
Whittier’s temporary closure was the first time in the academic year a D.C. Public School had to shift to virtual operations because of an outbreak. Parents and Council members have been curious about how the cases at Whittier were identified and what specifically compelled D.C. Public Schools to pause in-person learning.
Two of the confirmed coronavirus cases were detected through a round of asymptomatic testing that was conducted at Whittier on Dec. 10, according to a report from the Office of the State Superintendent that was shared with D.C. Council members Friday. D.C. Public Schools further told council members in a statement that it moved Whittier to virtual instruction because the school had limited staffing availability and many of its students were in quarantine.
Over 1,000 people signed a petition Friday afternoon that requested all D.C. Public Schools move to virtual learning from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22, right before the scheduled holiday break. School officials said Friday that there are no imminent plans to move other schools to virtual operations.
Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.