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Hospitalizations in D.C. and Maryland set records as omicron surge continues

People receive free coronavirus self-testing kits at the Anacostia public library in D.C. on Dec. 23, 2021. (Michael Mccoy/Reuters)

Maryland and the District set records Wednesday for patients hospitalized with covid-19, as the region headed into a new chapter of the coronavirus pandemic, in which many people are safer from severe disease due to vaccines but the highly transmissible omicron variant has still led to more hospitalizations than ever before.

Across the region, local leaders continue to call for more measures to mitigate a wave of coronavirus cases caused by the rapidly spreading variant. On Wednesday, Montgomery County considered extending its mask mandate longer; Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) granted emergency funds to help local hospitals; and Bowser announced that school students won’t be allowed to come back from winter break without proving first that they have tested negative for the virus.

So far, the omicron wave has not caused disease as severe as earlier waves of the pandemic. Fewer patients now need intensive care or ventilators. Vaccinated people, especially those with booster shots, are far less likely to need hospital care at all. And while case rates have soared and hospitalization rates risen, a serious rise in deaths has not yet followed, though health-care workers are still waiting cautiously to see whether the increase in sick patients will lead to a rise in deaths next week.

Tracking coronavirus data in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

“This is not March of 2020,” Hogan sought to reassure residents on Wednesday, even as hospital leaders and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) asked him to reimpose a state of emergency. “It’s important to use common sense and take precautions, but we have the tools, resources and strategies in place to protect ourselves.”

In a statement, Hogan said the state has “already taken a number of emergency actions in preparation for this surge,” including directing $100 million to hospitals and nursing homes and mobilizing the Maryland National Guard to set up new testing sites.

The District also announced plans to make $15 million in additional grants to hospitals on Wednesday, to help them cover staffing costs during the coronavirus surge. Bowser noted that about one out of four hospital workers in the District are not currently working because they have tested positive for the virus or have been in close contact with someone who has.

With such high absence rates, hospitals are employing more than twice as many visiting nurses as before the pandemic, at a cost of about $160 to $200 per hour for each nurse.

The city’s health department said Wednesday that those hospitalized with covid last week spanned a range of ages, from 28 children younger than 5, to 63 people over 74. The highest number of those hospitalized were between 55 and 64 years of age.

More than 500 patients in the District were hospitalized Wednesday with confirmed or suspected cases of covid, breaking a record for total coronavirus hospitalizations in the city set in April 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Maryland on Tuesday night surpassed more than 2,000 covid-related hospitalizations — the highest number in that state since the start of the pandemic.

Maryland reported 10,873 new cases on Wednesday — another pandemic record — and 31 deaths. Virginia reported 12,112 cases and 37 deaths, and the District reported 1,412 cases and one death.

Elrich noted on Wednesday that Montgomery, Maryland’s most vaccinated county, has seen its case rate multiply eightfold over the month of December. About 133 employees and volunteers of the county’s Fire and Rescue Services department have been unable to report to work because of a coronavirus infection or exposure, forcing the department to make adjustments in services, he said. “We expect these numbers to get worse before they get better,” Elrich said.

Montgomery has rules in place that will automatically end the county’s indoor mask mandate when 85 percent of its 1 million residents are fully vaccinated. But on Wednesday — with 83 percent of the population fully vaccinated — acting health officer James Bridgers recommended to lawmakers that the mask mandate stay in place at least until the end of January, according to assistant chief administrative officer Earl Stoddard. The council will review Bridgers’ recommendation next week, Stoddard said.

The District and Baltimore County both brought back their lapsed mask mandates in response to this surge in cases, and currently plan to end them at the end of January.

Residents continue to line up for tests across the region. D.C. Health emergency response leader Patrick Ashley said Wednesday that the city gave out more than 216,000 rapid antigen tests in its first week, making the tests available free at select firehouses and libraries in the city.

So far, 16,989 people have used the health department’s website to report the result of those tests, Ashley said, and he asked everyone who takes a test at home to report whether it is positive or negative, so that the District can track the data. Of those who reported the tests that they obtained from the city or bought at a pharmacy, 833 of them were positive, Ashley said — meaning the vast majority of the city’s cases during the recent surge have been reported through more traditional testing channels, despite the recent interest in at-home tests.

Donna Durante-Miller’s bar on H Street, The Elroy, was closed Wednesday, but she was there anyway — supervising a makeshift coronavirus testing site. Durante-Miller had previously teamed up with a laboratory to offer coronavirus tests at her bar, and felt it was time again.

Instead of drinks or hookah, people lined up Wednesday afternoon to choose between a nasal swab or a saliva test, both offered free with or without insurance and promising results within 24 hours. “Now that the need is so great, and the lines are so long in DC, we thought we’d bring it back,” she said.

Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.