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The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Health-care workers check in patients at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in Arlington earlier this summer. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday that the state has ordered 250,000 rapid coronavirus tests that can deliver results in 15 minutes and will be deployed for mass screenings at nursing homes across the state.

The rapid antigen tests, less sensitive than lab-based diagnostic tests that take hours, are newly approved by federal regulators for broad screenings and can be run on a handheld device.

The tests, which Hogan (R) said cost roughly $8 million, are the first purchase from a multistate compact created last month to hasten development of quick-result tests. In the absence of a national testing strategy, 10 states and the Rockefeller Foundation formed a consortium to amplify their buying power and motivate testing companies to ramp up production.

There’s no national testing strategy for coronavirus. These states banded together to make one.

Hogan said Maryland expects to receive the first tests within days. He intends to order at least 250,000 more to deploy elsewhere as part of a multipronged testing strategy to slow the novel coronavirus’s spread and reopen more of the economy.

“Testing is really the only way out,” said Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, adding that mass shutdowns are not a feasible or fair way to keep the virus in check.

Shah said these types of tests could theoretically be deployed twice a week to keep schools open in communities where the virus is spreading.

Maryland does not have plans to use the tests in schools, although they will be sent to corrections facilities and juvenile detention centers, Hogan said.

From late spring until last month, the state had been providing universal testing in nursing homes, which make up a disproportionate share of coronavirus cases and deaths. But the state has stopped paying the tab, prompting the nursing home industry to say it cannot keep up the testing without financial help.

The rapid antigen tests will be used on nursing home residents, staff members and visitors.

The state will report the results of the mass screenings from the rapid tests. However, key health data about the spread of the virus will rely on test data from the standard diagnostic test, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

“This is another valuable tool,” Hogan said Thursday during a news conference at the Baltimore County facility of Becton, Dickinson and Co., which produced the BD Veritor System for testing. The state will pay for the tests using a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hogan said.

Somewhat similar to a flu test administered at a doctor’s office, these “point-of-care” tests detect a spiky protein on the surface of the virus. Anyone who tests positive would be referred for a more sensitive PCR lab test to confirm the diagnosis. The PCR tests detect a sequence of the virus’s RNA and are considered the gold standard in testing, although results can take three to seven hours.

Coronavirus cases and metrics in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

According to Hogan’s staff, eight other states in the compact have since placed orders for the tests: Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Ohio, Utah and Virginia. Louisiana, which is dealing with the damage caused by Hurricane Laura, has not placed an order.

In Virginia, officials are discussing other methods to slow the pandemic’s spread.

The Alexandria City Council is considering an ordinance that would require masks to be worn over the nose and mouth indoors in public places and outdoors where social distancing is not possible.

The ordinance, which would strengthen current guidelines that follow a statewide order, would have exemptions for those younger than 10, for anyone while eating or drinking and for those whose health would be harmed by wearing a mask. The penalty is a $100 fine, but City Manager Mark B. Jinks said Tuesday that police would focus on education, not enforcement.

A public hearing on the proposal will be held at the council’s virtual meeting Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday that he had eased coronavirus restrictions in the Hampton Roads area, allowing it to rejoin the rest of the state in Phase 3 of the plan to reopen businesses.

Northam (D) placed special restrictions on the eastern region of the state on July 31 after spikes there in coronavirus infections. Many were driven by beach areas, where large gatherings of young people were blamed for increasing incidents of the disease.

But new cases have decreased in the area for 46 days and the percentage of positive test results has decline for 12 days, Northam’s office said. As of Sept. 6, the eastern region reported a seven-day average positivity rate of 6.7 percent, according to state totals, compared with 7.6 percent for the state as a whole.

The region includes Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Hampton, Williamsburg, Newport News, Poquoson, and James City and York counties. Northam’s targeted restrictions had limited gatherings there to 50 people or fewer, held restaurants to 50 percent capacity for indoor dining, prohibited sales of alcohol after 10 p.m. and mandated that restaurants close at midnight.

With those restrictions lifted, restaurants’ dining capacities are limited only by the need to keep patrons at least six feet apart. With social-distancing measures in place, gatherings are allowed up to 250 people. There are no restrictions on hours of business.

“Hampton Roads residents, businesses, and health officials have worked together to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Northam said in a news release. “If we want to keep moving forward, we must stay vigilant and do the things that we know will keep our communities safe.”

Virginia, Maryland and the District added 1,764 new coronavirus ­cases and 20 deaths on Thursday. Virginia reported 1,236 new cases and 11 deaths, Maryland had 503 cases and eight deaths, while the District had 25 cases and one death.

The seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus infections has been mostly flat in the region since late August, standing at 1,600 daily cases on Thursday.

Maryland reported having 92 patients in intensive care units statewide Thursday, which is the lowest level since late March.

The Labor Department on Thursday reported that 21,844 people filed new unemployment claims in the greater Washington region for the week ending Sept. 5. That is up slightly from 19,044 filings a week earlier.

More than 1.5 million people have filed unemployment claims in the District, Virginia and Maryland since the pandemic began in the spring.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the cost of the rapid coronavirus tests purchased by the state of Maryland. It cost roughly $8 million.

Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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