The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus cases hit new highs in the D.C. area as residents scramble to find tests

Rebecca Middleton waits for her ride after getting tested for the coronavirus at Benning Stoddert Recreation Center in Southeast Washington on Dec. 21. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Coronavirus cases surged to new highs in parts of the Washington metropolitan area Tuesday, leading residents on a mad dash to find scarce home-testing kits and causing officials to warn of a need for tighter precautions and more hospital capacity.

Just in time for the holiday travel season, Maryland and the District are hitting unprecedented levels of new confirmed coronavirus cases and Virginia is climbing to daily levels not seen since September. The surge takes place as the omicron variant of the coronavirus seems to be driving a flare-up of infections nationally.

“We’re entering another pivotal moment in the fight against covid-19,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Tuesday, his voice hoarse, in a video briefing recorded at the governor’s mansion, where he is isolating after contracting covid-19.

Where can I get a coronavirus test in the DMV?

Tuesday’s case count obliterated previous pandemic records in Maryland, with 6,218 positive tests reported in the preceding 24 hours. The previous one-day record, logged at the height of last winter’s surge, was 3,758. The seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 more than doubled in one day in Maryland, from 40.28 on Monday to 82.14 on Tuesday.

In D.C., the seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 reached 133 on Tuesday — the highest it’s been during the entire pandemic by far. D.C. began seeing record daily numbers of coronavirus cases on Thursday.

Cases are rising in Virginia, as well. The seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 in that state reached 41.88 on Tuesday — a number not seen since September. While the state’s overall totals have not spiked to record levels, some areas reported an alarming surge. Arlington County said it had 268 new cases on Saturday, a single-day high.

Walgreens, CVS struggle with demand for tests

Residents around the region searched for rapid take-home tests as they reconsidered plans to gather with family for the holidays. In many cases, pharmacies were sold out. Legions of District residents landed at a public, walk-up testing site in Farragut Square on Tuesday, where the line of people snaked throughout the park until the site closed at noon.

With concern deepening, the Washington National Cathedral announced Tuesday that it was canceling Christmas Day services and moving its holiday organ recital to online-only, citing “consultations with epidemiologists, church leaders and government officials.” The cathedral also canceled its Dec. 23 family Christmas Eve service but said other events — including its Sunday service — will continue with the requirement that everyone in attendance wear a mask, in keeping with D.C.’s reinstated indoor masking mandate.

In Maryland, Hogan and state health officials said they expect hospitalizations to peak in January at the same time the regular flu season crests, leaving the already-strained medical system struggling to operate. Hogan announced $50 million would be used to rapidly hire medical personnel to staff hospitals diminished by employee burnout and shortages.

The governor said he’s asked for testing hours and capacity to be expanded at state-run sites in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and he promised $50 million to help pay for testing and treatment in the state’s nursing homes.

He encouraged residents to get fully vaccinated and receive booster shots, warning that the small minority of unvaccinated residents now make up 75 percent of hospitalized covid-19 patients.

Tracking U.S. Covid-19 cases, deaths and other metrics by state

Maryland officials said the omicron variant has been found in 40 percent of the samples sequenced in the state, but the flood of hospitalized covid-19 patients is due to the delta variant. Hospitalizations in Maryland are climbing to levels not seen since February, with the seven-day average at 1,563 on Tuesday.

Maryland hospitals have about 500 fewer beds than this time last year, a 5 percent decrease, because there are not enough medical workers to staff them, Ted Delbridge, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, said.

Some Maryland hospitals are spending three and four times the normal rate for traveling nurses who are in high demand across the country, Bob Atlas, the president and chief executive of the Maryland Hospital Association, recently said.

Tracking the coronavirus outbreak in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

“We’re paying extra to get travel nurses, and that is costing a large fortune for many of our institutions,” Atlas said.

Hospitals with fewer beds are also contending with a surge of flu patients that did not materialize last winter, state health officials said, leading to potentially long waits in emergency rooms and fewer surgeries for non-covid patients.

In Prince George’s County, the signs of a surge are clear, officials said Tuesday, but there remains no county-specific data because of the continued fallout from a cyberattack on the Maryland state health department.

“The concern is that we have all been flying, to some extent, a little bit in the dark,” County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said at a news conference. “Because we haven’t been able to get that data from the state.”

Prince George’s was the hardest-hit jurisdiction in the Washington region in the beginning of the pandemic but for months reported case rates among the lowest in the state. Now, officials said, the county’s contact tracing center has been swamped because of outbreaks at schools and nursing homes.

There were 994 students and 261 teachers who tested positive for coronavirus last week, said schools chief Monica Goldson. The outbreak — which left more than 16,000 students quarantined — “significantly” impacted learning and led to her decision to temporarily suspend in-person learning.

Hospitals in the county are about 43 percent full, said health officer Ernest Carter, although he added that he knew that figure is “going to rise fast.”

Virginia’s surge has so far been less severe than the situation in Maryland and D.C. A spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) credited the state’s efforts to promote vaccines and boosters, though its vaccination rates are slightly lower than those in Maryland.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, on Monday tweeted a reminder to residents: “Hi Virginia, it’s your doctor-governor here. Vaccines and boosters are the very best way to protect yourself and your family from #COVID19—particularly over the holidays.”

Spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Northam is keeping an eye on rising hospitalization rates, but noted that the state remains below earlier peak levels.

Julian Walker, a spokesman for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said coronavirus hospitalizations peaked in January around 3,200 patients, compared with around 1,500 now. He said Virginia hospitals have added some 3,700 beds in response to the ongoing crisis.

The pandemic has magnified existing staffing challenges, Walker said, but hospitals are using traveling nurses and flexible staffing to respond.

The Virginia Department of Health is distributing free rapid-response tests through 38 library systems around the state, Yarmosky said, as well as through Walgreens pharmacies, long-term-care facilities and free clinics. Residents can locate tests on the health department website.

In D.C., the City Council granted final approval Tuesday to a bill that will require all public school students to get vaccinated against the coronavirus once the FDA fully authorizes a vaccine for their age group. The bill instructs the school system to begin enforcing the vaccine requirement next fall. It will now go to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) desk for her signature.

The council also voted unanimously to allow Bowser to extend the city’s state of emergency up until March 17 if she chooses, and to require schools to continue sporadically testing students for the coronavirus until at least April.

City officials sought to raise awareness of self-testing options Tuesday morning at the Shaw Library. There, Patrick Ashley, the emergency response leader at D.C. Health, and other health officials demonstrated how to properly use take-home PCR tests, which became available at 36 city locations Monday, up from 27 sites. They also discussed a new program that starts Wednesday to provide residents with rapid antigen tests at eight D.C. libraries.

As Ashley spoke, dozens of people streamed in and out of the library to pick up new PCR tests and drop off used ones. Within minutes, residents hoping to acquire a test were forced to turn around in disappointment after the available supply had run out.

At walk-up testing sites around town, many people waiting in long lines said they were unaware of the city’s take-home test program.

Tyler Groves, a Navy Yard resident, was among the last to get a test at Farragut Square on Tuesday; he wanted to make sure he was negative for the coronavirus before visiting his family in New York. He had tried going to multiple pharmacies, only to learn they weren’t doing testing. He even tried his primary care provider, which had no walk-ups available until January.

“I decided to do some research, and here I am today,” said Groves, who works at Kipp DC College Prep. “My parents are in the age range where they could potentially have more symptoms if they test positive. I just want to make sure that before I leave for the holidays that they’re fine.”

Later, at the Benning Stoddert Recreation Center Southeast, a line of more than 80 people stretched down East Capitol Street SE just after 1:30 p.m. Some people said they had waited more than an hour and a half for a test.

Ashley could not specify how many tests the city is processing in recent days but said the District has seen “tremendous demand” — with about a third of the volume coming from public testing sites.

He said there is no concern about supply, with the city producing new kits each day. D.C. has also ordered 1 million rapid tests to be available to residents starting Wednesday, Ashley said.

He added that D.C. leaders are in daily talks with hospitals to discuss capacity and staffing problems. Ashley said they have plenty of space, noting that less than 5 percent of individuals that contract the coronavirus in the District are hospitalized. “They all feel comfortable that they’re able to meet this surge,” he added.

Michelle Boorstein, Julie Zauzmer Weil and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.