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D.C. opens covid centers, Montgomery County considers vaccine passport

Washington, D.C. - January 18: Mayor Bowser tours the facility with Patrick Ashley, Senior Deputy Director, DC Health, left. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and DC Health launch eight new covid-19 Centers. On Tuesday morning, the mayor toured the center at 3925 Minnesota Ave NE in Ward 7. covid-19 Centers will provide residents with the opportunity to get vaccinated and tested at times that work for their schedule. Primary dose vaccinations and boosters as well as walk-up PCR testing and take-home rapid antigen kits will be available. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Tuesday announced plans to open eight centers — one in each ward — for residents seeking coronavirus vaccinations and tests, as the regional death rate increases and more places consider vaccine mandates.

“We are entering, sadly … our third calendar year for our fight against covid,” Bowser (D) told reporters before touring the Ward 7 covid center, which opened Tuesday alongside centers in wards 1, 2 and 8. “We know that it’s going to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. We have recognized that we have to adapt to these realities and stay ahead of the curve.”

The centers will provide vaccines, at-home rapid antigen test kits and kiosks for taking PCR tests and are located in areas selected for accessibility, such as a shopping center. Centers in wards 3, 4, 5 and 6 are slated to open Monday.

After a months-long surge driven by the omicron variant, infection rates dropped in recent days by about 30 percent in D.C. and Maryland, and less in Virginia, where the spike took longer to materialize than elsewhere in the region, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker.

In the District, Patrick Ashley, the head of emergency response for the city’s health department, highlighted the importance of vaccination while discussing recent coronavirus deaths.

“The one common thing these people are dying from is . . . being unvaccinated,” Ashley said.

Sequencing shows 70 percent of new infections are due to the omicron variant and 30 percent are delta, he said. The city’s health department will continue to stock tests at select libraries, firehouses and other locations.

The report came three days after the city instituted a vaccine requirement for retail stores and restaurants. Officials in Montgomery County, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an 85 percent vaccination rate, are considering a similar policy.

County residents and business owners who turned out to oppose the proposed vaccine passport at a virtual public hearing Tuesday said it would not slow the spread of the coronavirus and would burden businesses already suffering amid the pandemic, driving economic activity away from the county.

Some speakers threatened to vote out council members in the upcoming Democratic primary if they voted for the vaccine passport; others warned that such a mandate would force restaurants and retail employees to become proof-of-vaccine enforcers, possibly placing themselves at risk of backlash from unhappy patrons.

The health resolution proposed by County Executive Marc Elrich (D) would require all residents 5 or older to provide proof of full vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, fitness centers and other indoor facilities.

Those who have medical or religious exemptions would be excluded. This proposal is more stringent than the requirement that recently took effect in D.C., which requires proof of vaccination from those 12 or older. Mask mandates remain in effect in the county and in D.C.

“Its negative consequences far outweigh the benefits,” said Mauricio Vasquez, a board member with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for Montgomery County. The chamber “fully supports” efforts to increase vaccine uptake, he said, but is concerned a sweeping mandate would be costly and difficult for small businesses to enforce.

Not all residents in the county have identification cards to verify against proof of vaccination documents, he said, and having police officers enforce the vaccine passport — as is currently proposed — could heighten anxiety in communities of color.

“Insufficient thought has been given to the vaccine mandate,” Vasquez said. “It could promote social inequities.”

To take effect, the bill needs to be approved by the Montgomery County Council, which is scheduled to vote on it on Jan. 25.

Baltimore City is also considering a vaccine passport.

The debate comes as D.C., Maryland and Virginia report a slight drop in infection rates and an increase in deaths, which experts say typically follows a surge in cases.

Omicron surge appears to be nearing peak in resource-strained region

In Maryland, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman opened his weekly covid briefing on a somber note Tuesday, announcing that 39 residents died of covid-19 last week — the highest weekly total since the start of the pandemic.

“While the good news is that case rates are dropping and even hospitalizations are starting to reflect the drop, and we expect the omicron surge to be on the downturn very soon, the death rate has not,” he said. “The death rate has surged.”

Anne Arundel’s previous seven-day record for deaths, 30, was set last January.

Anne Arundel Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman said hospitalizations in the county are showing “a glimmer of a good sign,” by appearing to plateau with 230 patients Tuesday.

Maryland has experienced a 10 percent decline in hospitalizations in the past week, and its seven-day average case rate has dropped in half, from a high of 16,158 earlier this month to 8,444 on Tuesday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

Deaths, on the other hand, are seeing a slight uptick. According to The Post’s covid-19 tracker, the seven-day average of deaths was nearly 2 percent higher than last week.

“Please, please, please,” Kalyanaraman said, “if you know anyone who is not vaccinated against covid-19, plead with them to do so.”

Nicole Asbury and Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.