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The D.C. region’s new covid normal: Infections up, masks optional

Kevin Romero, left, puts his nasal swab in a testing tube as Monica Reyes, center, and Elisa Sorto conduct his coronavirus test at Mary’s Center on Friday in Silver Spring, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Photos of rapid test results on social media. Harried texts from friends and family. Missed calls from contact tracers.

Signs are everywhere that coronavirus infections in D.C., Maryland and Virginia are on the rise again, with new daily cases this week at least quadruple what they were in late March. But unlike in previous waves, most local and state governments are steering clear of introducing new regulations to stem the spread of the virus, sticking instead to recommendations for people to mask up and get vaccinated.

Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, two jurisdictions hit hardest by covid-19 in the region, this week urged residents to wear masks indoors but stopped short of issuing mandates. Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties haven’t recommended any changes. Meanwhile in Montgomery County, its school district will require mask-wearing in an individual classroom if at least three people test positive in that room.

Tracking coronavirus cases, deaths and vaccinations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

“Everyone is expecting that we are going to respond like we did in 2020, or like we did in 2021 and that’s not necessarily appropriate anymore,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D), adding that the highly vaccinated city has no plans to introduce a mask recommendation.

As governments attempt to balance the need to protect the vulnerable with the transition to a new phase of the pandemic, residents have largely been left to assess their individual risks and precautions, from masking to testing. This risk calculus has grown more challenging as public health departments pull back on reporting covid-19 data regularly and at-home tests become more prevalent, probably hiding the true toll of the virus and its variants, experts say.

For immunocompromised residents and those with children too young to be vaccinated, the spike in new infections has meant retreating into their homes, even as more employers are calling workers back to offices.

“It certainly seems like local government officials everywhere have totally given up on the idea of public health interventions to slow the spread,” said Eric Toner, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The District, which recently came under fire for failing to report daily covid-19 data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday that residents don’t need to wear masks since the city’s transmission levels are still considered low by CDC standards.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said in a news briefing Wednesday that this wave of infections was “lasting longer than expected.” That’s in part because people have changed how they behave and perceive risk, said Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer.

“The risk assessment and risk trade-off — different people are making different assessments,” Stoddard said.

The unequal toll of the omicron wave

The surge in infections is already probably higher than publicly reported throughout the region and is likely to climb, experts say.

Tory Cross, a 29-year-old immunocompromised D.C. resident, said she was “heartbroken” to watch D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) remove the mask and vaccine requirements from businesses earlier this year, and wishes the precautions would return. She enjoys visiting coffee shops and eating with friends, but as cases surge she mostly spends her weekends at home, brewing her own coffee and ordering in.

Meanwhile, she watches with trepidation as tourists — perhaps from parts of the country with low vaccination rates — gather in the city she’s called home for nearly a year without doing much exploring. For her, the conflicting guidance amounts to a “choose your own adventure” pandemic.

“High risk people should be able to participate in every element of our society as fully as everyone else can,” Cross said. “When it’s unsafe for us to go the pharmacy, or for immunocompromised kids to go to school, or for my fiance to go to work, it really limits what we can do.”

Boris D. Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said the rise in transmission is an undeniable “struggle” for the immunocompromised, but added that he doesn’t think new interventions are necessary if hospitalizations don’t surge dramatically.

“The reality is … there is a transition going on,” Lushniak said, referencing remarks that Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, made and revised last month about the country moving out of a “pandemic phase.”

How fast omicron’s BA.2 variant is spreading around the world

“What we’re doing is the right approach for now,” Lushniak said.

Daily infections in Baltimore have more than doubled over the last month; this week, with the city recording more than 400 new infections on two days — the highest levels since February. City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa on Tuesday urged residents to wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status, calling the guidance a “warning” in a news conference.

“The goal is not to get to a point where a mandate is necessary,” Dzirasa said in an interview, adding that if the city reaches the CDC’s definition of a “high” level of community transmission — more than 20 daily covid-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people — she would recommend reinstating the indoor mask mandate.

Montgomery County and Baltimore City in Maryland, as well as most of Northern Virginia, have reached “medium” levels of community transmission, based in part on hospital admissions.

Dzirasa said she’s hopeful that residents will heed her advisory, but acknowledged that “social norms” around precautions like masking and social distancing have changed.

“It becomes harder the further we move away from restrictions,” she said.

Toner, the Johns Hopkins scientist, said he hopes to see more local governments encourage indoor masking even if they don’t require it. There can be a social pressure on people to remove their masks if others around them aren’t masked up. A strongly worded advisory like the one from Dzirasa, Toner said, “might give [people] a little bit of courage to keep that mask on.”

Even if more people return to masking, Toner noted, other pandemic-era precautions have started to wind down. The District stopped reporting daily case data on its own website two months ago and recently stopped sharing that data with the CDC.

In Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) made masks optional in schools within hours of taking office, his chief of staff, Jeff Goettman, last week issued a new telework policy for executive branch employees, effective July 5.

“Virginia is again open for business and we want to lead its emergence from the pandemic in the workplace,” he said in an email to employees.

The policy says agency heads must approve telework for one day a week, cabinet secretaries two days a week and the chief of staff three days a week or more.

But risks remain.

In Virginia, a spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that the state health department’s commissioner, Colin Greene, had tested positive for the virus.

Karina Elwood, Nicole Asbury, Antonio Olivo and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.