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D.C., Montgomery County see covid cases drop — but not mask mandates

Mandate extensions should help keep area cases trending downward, experts say

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser in December. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

While coronavirus cases are declining in the Washington region, leaders in the District and Montgomery County moved this week to ensure that mask usage doesn’t yet drop, too.

Those decisions, experts say, should help the two jurisdictions maintain that downward trend, after both reported record highs earlier this month.

“Harm reduction at this point is paramount,” said Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland.

Lawmakers in Montgomery County voted unanimously on Tuesday to extend the expiry date of its indoor mask mandate from Jan. 31 to Feb. 21. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Wednesday that the city would extend its indoor mask mandate, which was set to expire this month, until the end of February.

Mayor Bowser extends D.C.’s indoor mask requirement until Feb. 28

The District on Thursday reported a weekly coronavirus case rate of about 380 new cases per 100,000 people, which D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt called a “remarkable” decline from the more than 2,200 cases per 100,000 people the city reported around New Year’s. In Montgomery County, the weekly case rate per 100,000 was about 392 on Thursday, a stark decrease from the peak of 2,137 cases per 100,000 the county reported Jan. 9.

“Our surge right now has come down rapidly. That’s a really good thing,” Nesbitt said Thursday. “But we’re not as low as we have been at other parts of time, and still slightly higher than we were during our highest point of time last winter.”

Nesbitt reminded residents to stay vigilant and encourage their friends and family to get vaccinated, including booster shots, and adhere to mask requirements. Bowser announced that, starting Friday, residents will be able to pick up two KN95 masks per day at the city’s new “covid centers” — clinics where residents can access vaccines, rapid antigen tests or get a PCR test.

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The city has announced locations for seven of the eight covid centers, with a location expected to open soon in Ward 3, Bowser said. She also said a new testing site will open Friday in Ward 8, across from the Anacostia Metro station, in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sehgal applauded the extension of the indoor mask mandates into next month. Maintaining the mandates, Sehgal said, will help prevent these jurisdictions from losing momentum in recently declining caseloads.

Montgomery briefly lifted its indoor mask mandate last fall before reinstating it as cases began to climb in November. Like other parts of the D.C. region, the county’s test positivity and infection rate skyrocketed in December and January because of the contagious omicron variant. Cases have since plunged, but the county, like the District, is still experiencing what the CDC considers “high transmission.”

Maryland covid deaths have hit a monthly record amid omicron

“It would be wiser to wait until transmission was at ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ to contemplate rescinding the mask requirement,” Sehgal said. “It’s important to remember transmission is still high, and in that regard, masks are really helpful.”

Instead of having a set of metrics that would automatically trigger the lifting of the mandate, the Montgomery County Council pledged to meet weekly as the Board of Health to assess the necessity of the regulation. With D.C.’s mask mandate now also set to expire next month, Bowser and health officials have similarly declined to tie them to specific metrics — but Bowser said the city may not need to extend it again “if conditions warrant.”

“There isn’t a person I know who doesn’t want to return to normalcy … but we are not in normal times,” said Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large). Less than a month ago, he noted, the county was asking whether the Maryland National Guard could help fill the county’s dire shortage of school bus drivers.

Deaths, meanwhile, are mounting in the state. With several days left, January is already Maryland’s deadliest month of the pandemic.

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Sabrina McCormick, an environmental and occupational health professor at George Washington University, said there are no definitive answers to when exactly mask mandates should be lifted. In general, she said, it’s better to err on the side of caution and lean into tracking community infection rates and new variants, rather than looking at the seasons.

Masking generally makes people feel safer, McCormick said — namely older populations, the immunocompromised and children who are not yet eligible for a coronavirus vaccine.

“We as a population need to take care of these people,” she said. “There’s not a huge downside to wearing masks. But there are a lot of positives.”