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Surging cases and hospitalizations are continuing to set grim records in Washington region

Officials are still struggling to meet the high demand for testing

People are tested for coronavirus at a site in Farragut Square in D.C. on Dec. 21. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
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The greater Washington region continues to be battered by the rapidly spreading omicron variant, reporting some of the highest per capita increases in hospitalizations in the nation and soaring case rates that have launched residents on desperate quests for tests.

Compared to a week ago, D.C. has seen an increase in admitted covid-19 patients per capita that is more than three times as high as any state, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Maryland’s increase ranked fifth in the nation and Virginia’s ninth.

Hospitalizations in all three jurisdictions are still below their peaks during previous surges, before vaccines were widely available. But the uptick, combined with health-care staff shortages, is nonetheless prompting warnings from some hospitals in the region that they are at risk of being overwhelmed.

“While we remain committed to providing the best care at our hospitals, it is becoming increasingly challenging,” Luminis Health chief executive Tori Bayless said in a statement Monday. “We need the community’s support now more than ever — please get vaccinated and boosted.”

The health system, which includes Doctors Community Medical Center in Lanham and Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, has seen a 325 percent increase in covid-19 patients since Dec. 1. The surge in hospitalizations combined with staffing shortages meant that “the demand for healthcare is reaching a critical point of exceeding the ability of the health system to provide it,” Luminis said in a news release. Measures that will be implemented, the news release said, include adjusting surgical schedules and delaying non-emergency surgeries. Three other Maryland hospitals already have declared a health-care “disaster” due to staggering covid-19 case loads.

Bob Atlas, president of Maryland’s Hospital Association, on Tuesday called on Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to reinstate the provisions of the public health emergency, noting that the number of covid-19 patients in Maryland hospitals is up to 1,826 — up 112 from Sunday. The state, he said, will likely soon pass its all-time high of 1,952 covid-19 patients on Jan. 11.

He said that the original public health emergency order, which expired this summer, offered hospitals flexibility and protection that are currently needed. Specifically, he said in an interview, hospitals want to be able to hire staff with expired licenses so health-care workers who have retired can return to work, and to have greater flexibility when it comes to staff doing work beyond what their licenses would typically allow.

Hospitals also want protection from liability lawsuits, he said, because they are operating in a “catastrophic health emergency.”

“All the help that we can get is going to be welcomed,” he said.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the state began “taking a series of immediate, proactive actions to further bolster our hospital systems” earlier this month, including more funding for staff, flexibility for licensing and establishing a surge operations center.

Hogan, he noted, had a call Tuesday morning with the state’s multiagency coronavirus task force. “Additional actions will be taken as needed in line with the data and the science,” Ricci said.

As the United States on Tuesday reported the highest seven-day average of daily new cases since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, so too did the greater D.C. region. Nationwide, the seven-day average of daily new cases was at 253,245 Tuesday afternoon — passing the previous high of 248,209 cases on Jan. 12. In D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the seven-day average of daily new cases was at 15,654 Tuesday afternoon, passing Monday’s record of 15,072.

D.C., Maryland and Virginia emerge from Christmas weekend with record coronavirus case numbers

Maryland on Tuesday also resumed reporting covid-19-related deaths after a more than three-week pause because of a cybersecurity breach.

In the week leading up to Christmas, about 164 Marylanders died of covid-19, with the state’s more rural and less-vaccinated counties seeing dramatic increases in deaths per capita.

Officials said the data pointed to the effectiveness of vaccines, noting that there were substantially fewer deaths in recent weeks compared with the same period last year. A number of recent reports from medical experts indicate that healthy people who have been vaccinated, and especially those who have been boosted, seem unlikely to develop severe infections from the omicron variant that would land them in the hospital.

“A look at deaths over time—especially comparing last year’s wave to this one—is another indicator that #VaccinesWork,” Ricci tweeted, noting that this week last year, there were 44 deaths, compared with 18 this week.

Officials across the region report that they are trying — and often struggling — to keep up with the high demand for tests driven by the surging case numbers and holiday travel.

In Loudoun County, a line of cars and SUVs began forming outside a free drive-through testing site at 8 a.m., prompting officials there to begin the testing more than an hour before the scheduled 10 a.m. start time.

By 10:15 a.m., the site at Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park in Leesburg had at least 1,200 vehicles idling in line. Officials had closed the site to newcomers in an effort to control the traffic disruptions on a nearby road caused by the waiting vehicles.

David Goodfriend, Loudoun’s health director, said the county is working with its private contractor to increase the number of tests that will be available for another drive-through testing event planned for Thursday at the park.

But with the omicron variant quickly spreading and thousands of area residents hoping to learn they’re virus-free after returning from Christmas holiday vacations or in advance of planned New Year’s Eve celebrations, the demand for testing is outstripping the contractor’s available supply, Goodfriend said.

“We want to meet that demand as well as we can,” he said. “But they’re also seeing demand in other places. So, it’s a challenge for them as well to be able to provide a larger number of tests.”

Goodfriend said he was nonetheless encouraged to see so many people seeking to get tested. Given the omicron variant’s high rates of transmission and the fact that students will soon begin returning to school, residents should be doing everything they can to stop the virus from spreading even more, he said.

“If a test is available, take advantage of it,” Goodfriend said.

In Montgomery County, meanwhile, testing volume has nearly doubled since the week before Thanksgiving, said health department spokesperson Mary Anderson.

The county in late November was averaging about 3,500 tests per week; last week, it averaged 2,500 tests a day.

Because of high demand, the county has also stopped taking walk-up appointments at its three major test sites — the Upcounty Regional Services Center, Montgomery College Rockville Campus and Montgomery College Silver Spring campus — causing some residents to be turned away.

At some points last year, Montgomery had as many as six county-run test sites, but some resources have since had to be redirected to the vaccination effort, Anderson said.

In addition, many of the staff at both testing and vaccination sites were school health nurses, who have since returned to their jobs at the county’s school system.

In Alexandria, people started lining up outside the Beatley Central and Duncan Branch library locations before they opened at 10 a.m., waiting to get a rapid antigen test.

Within 2½ hours of opening, both branches were out of stock. The two other library locations, Burke and Barrett, had about 150 to 200 tests left at the end of Tuesday, said Kimberly Knight, Alexandria Public Library deputy director. She anticipates both locations will run out of stock quickly Wednesday morning.

“Our phones won’t stop ringing,” Knight said.

Knight put in an order for more kits but doesn’t expect to receive the shipment until next week. She suggested that those interested in getting a test call ahead to their branch or check the library’s website for updates regarding availability.

“The library is excited to be a part of the solution,” Knight said about the program. “Other than running out, it’s been very successful.”

Jacqueline Dupree and Karina Elwood contributed to this report.