The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Omicron showing signs of peaking in D.C. and Maryland

Hogan offers 20 million free, high-grade masks

The winter surge of coronavirus cases may be peaking in the District and Maryland, experts said Thursday, as Maryland’s governor announced 20 million free N95 and KN95 masks will be distributed to further blunt the spread.

The case counts still far outpace any other phase of the pandemic. But the seven-day average of new cases in both D.C. and Maryland have generally declined this week, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

While new coronavirus cases have continued to increase this week in Virginia, the rate of growth has started to plunge.

“There’s hope, as a region, that we’re nearing the apex of this wave,” said University of Virginia professor Costi Sifri, who serves as U-Va.’s director of hospital epidemiology.

The omicron wave already appears to have slowed in other East Coast cities that were also hit early by the variant, including New York and Boston.

Omicron waves appear to slow in New York City, other major metropolitan areas

Across the D.C. region, hospitalizations remain at record highs that are straining medical facilities.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced six new testing sites to relieve the burden on emergency rooms fielding unprecedented testing demand. One site will open outside at Holy Cross Germantown Hospital in Montgomery County, and a total of 16 sites should be operational by the end of next week, he said. Hogan also said that starting next week, all nursing home visitors must show a negative test for entry.

The 20 million high-grade masks will be distributed next week through local health departments and all of the state-run test and vaccination sites. While the governor urged residents to get the more protective masks instead of cloth ones, he declined to reinstitute a statewide mandate.

“I don’t think we have any reason to change strategy,” because Maryland residents were already voluntarily wearing masks at rates higher than most of the country, Hogan said.

His staff pointed to a Carnegie Mellon University study that pegged Maryland’s mask usage at sixth-highest in the country. D.C., which has an indoor mask mandate, ranks first in the nation. Virginia, which also does not have a statewide rule, ranks 18th.

Virginia reported 18,942 new cases on Thursday, posting a record seven-day average of 18,782 new cases. Maryland reported 9,657 new cases and its seven-day average declined to 11,720, the fifth consecutive day the metric went down.

In the District, the seven-day average in new cases declined consecutively for five days before increasing slightly on Thursday, when 1,525 new infections were reported. The record 2,251 seven-day average of new cases, posted on Jan. 7, has declined to 1,745 as of Thursday.

D.C. Public Schools will require prekindergarten students to test weekly for the coronavirus starting this weekend, as a part of a new testing initiative in schools, system officials said Thursday.

D.C. Public Schools to require pre-K students test weekly for the coronavirus

The omicron variant spread throughout the District so fast that graphs of new coronavirus cases more closely resembled a wall — or a rocket launch — than a curve, said Lynn R. Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

But the city’s peak in new cases, she said, appears to have been last week, coming slightly earlier than most models anticipated.

Surveillance testing of George Washington’s 26,000 community members — including faculty, staff and students — offers a window into the rise and fall of the variant. Data from last week showed that about 10 percent of people were testing positive — a staggering rate that meant contact tracing was virtually impossible.

“It is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Goldman said. “The virus has been everywhere here.”

But this week, mirroring citywide declines reported by the health department, the positivity rate from the university’s testing was between 4 and 6 percent.

Goldman cautioned that hospitalizations, an indicator that tends to lag new cases by about two weeks, have probably not yet peaked. And D.C.’s hospitals are vulnerable, she added, in part because of spillover from Maryland’s overburdened system — in which 1 in 4 hospitals are working under crisis standards of care.

Where to get a coronavirus test in the D.C. area

How quickly D.C.’s cases will go down is unclear, Goldman said, in part because models in some other countries, including Denmark, reflect populations that have received their booster shots at higher rates than in the District.

Goldman said she wished she could say that in a couple of weeks, things would be normal. “But the reality is that on our campus, we are going to continue to look for genetic variants. New ones could arise. We don’t know if each one is going to be more benign than the last one. The next one might be worse. We don’t really know.”

In Virginia, cases are likely to drop first in the densely populated counties in Northern Virginia, which border D.C., and have been the hardest hit by the omicron surge, Sifri said.

Other parts of Virginia, especially its rural southwest, may see case rates continue to climb for a few weeks even after the statewide numbers begin to dip.

Data from other countries such as South Africa and Britain suggests that when cases do begin to drop, they might decline rapidly because of how widespread the omicron variant has been. In effect, Sifri explained, the virus could dry up rapidly after “burning through all the wood that was available.”

At the University of Virginia Medical Center’s intensive care unit, there are no indications as yet that the pressures from omicron are starting to slow, said medical director Kyle Enfield.

“Even when new hospitalizations do start to go down, people who are critically ill … are going to be here for many, many weeks after,” he said.