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Frustration mounts over vaccine accessibility in D.C.; Maryland detects U.K. coronavirus variant

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) speaks during a news conference in November. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

D.C. residents expressed frustration with a lack of coronavirus vaccination appointments available on the second day of expanded eligibility Tuesday as a highly contagious variant of the virus made its first confirmed appearance in the Washington region.

The United Kingdom variant of the virus was detected in Maryland, infecting a couple from Anne Arundel County, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said.

One of the spouses recently traveled to multiple continents, he said, and both are quarantining with their two children, who have not tested positive. Contact tracing of the couple’s interactions is underway.

The mutated variant spreads more rapidly, but there is no evidence it carries a greater risk of disease or death. Hogan said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield warned him Monday that the variant is widespread across the country but often is not detected.

As new variants of coronavirus continue to be discovered, here's what you need to know about how these mutations work and how they spread. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

“He said, ‘You can assume — we’re sure — that the U.K. variant is in every state. It just hasn’t been detected yet in every state,’ ” Hogan said Tuesday during a news conference.

A private lab flagged the couple’s sample and the Maryland public health lab and the CDC confirmed the variant, Hogan said. More than 60 cases of the strain have been identified in at least 10 states since it was detected two weeks ago in Colorado.

CDC foresees spread in U.S. of highly contagious coronavirus variant

Hogan’s announcement came as D.C. recorded 430 new cases, the highest single-day total ever in the city.

As seniors clamor for vaccines, a notice on D.C.’s vaccination website Tuesday said, “All 6,700 of the available vaccination appointments for the week of 1/11/21 were filled,” stoking concern that the first-come-first-serve system favored the digitally savvy over those who might not have computer access but are in need of protection against the virus.

Ken Mead, 70, of Chevy Chase, was aghast to find no vaccine appointments available.

“After all this angst about developing a vaccine, now we have one and we can’t seem to distribute it in an efficient way,” said Mead, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At the current pace, he said, the District has little hope of vaccinating even half of its population of more than 700,000 people in a year’s time, calling the situation “bleak.”

“That’s what set me off really,” he said. “Someone needs to do the math here.”

John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said city officials are offering the maximum number of slots possible with the doses available.

“The biggest anecdote we have, coming out of this, is that we need more vaccine,” he said. “There is demand for vaccines.”

The District has administered more than 26,000 of the 45,425 doses of the vaccine it has received as of Monday. Officials noted that the number might be higher because some pharmacies are using the city’s reporting system incorrectly.

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said Monday that the city would only open 4,000 appointments for seniors and health-care workers to receive vaccinations this week. Seniors quickly snapped up the slots, leaving some frustrated they hadn’t been able to register through the telephone or online systems.

Despite the complaints from seniors, Nesbitt expressed confidence in the system.

“We can handle the call volume. The website can handle the appointment scheduling,” she said. The city expects to receive another 8,300 doses this week.

Nesbitt said another 5,000 doses have been promised to CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Some are going to health-care providers, including Kaiser Permanente and George Washington University, which also will use the doses to vaccinate patients 65 and older.

Falcicchio said the Health Department will consider ways to make the process more accessible for low-income seniors, but didn’t offer specifics.

“With each action we take, we’re looking at how to make sure it is equitable,” he said. “We’ll continue to look through and make sure there are vaccines available to people in all eight wards.”

Known coronavirus deaths and cases in the Washington region

A D.C. Health spokeswoman said appointment sign-ups both online and by phone are intended to prevent giving an advantage to wealthier residents with reliable Internet access or enough time to make repeated attempts to book appointments.

Bread for the City, a nonprofit on Seventhth and P Streets NW that serves low-income residents, has been offering the vaccine to health-care workers and now to seniors. Most have signed up for the organization’s 50 slots per day through the city’s portal.

But those who contact the agency generally don’t have a history with the organization, said medical director Randi Abramson.

“It’s mostly a White crowd from Northwest,” she said. “That’s who’s using the Internet, and it’s either them or their children, and it’s their children who are bringing them in. They are the ones who are acutely aware of how it works and how to sign up.”

The group has set aside about 10 slots each day for its regular 450 clients.

East of the Anacostia River, advocates say, seniors seeking the vaccine have encountered mixed results.

Ambrose Lane Jr., chairman of the Health Alliance Network, said six seniors he knows in wards 7 and 8 secured appointments by phone early Monday, but those who called in the afternoon faced a waiting list. They took it in stride, he said.

“I’ve gotten, for the most part, positive feedback,” he said. “If it’s any one thing that I hope they pay attention to, it would be the seniors that are not mobile.”

Stuart Anderson, director of community engagement for the Anacostia Coordinating Council, said he spoke with two seniors in Southeast whose efforts to schedule appointments by phone Monday evening were stymied.

In the meantime, the District is taking steps to discourage visitors from flooding the capital for the presidential inauguration, a quadrennial event that D.C. businesses and cultural attractions usually embrace as a chance to shine.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered indoor restaurants and museums to remain closed until two days after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. The aim is to head off a spike in infections by yanking back the welcome mat amid the pandemic and the risk posed by right-wing groups that may be plotting violence before or on Inauguration Day.

The greater Washington region reported a record seven-day average Tuesday of 8,698 new coronavirus infections. The region added 7,656 new daily cases, with 4,561 in Virginia, 2,665 in Maryland and 430 in the District.

Yet the coronavirus vaccine rollout has been slow throughout the nation and the Washington region, with officials saying they hope opening slots to priority groups more quickly will speed up vaccinations.

“We really need to ramp things up. We need to get more shots into people’s arms, so we’re really stressing flexibility,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Tuesday.

Virginia has administered 200,402 doses, according to the state’s most recent data. The state has fully vaccinated 19,086 people. Maryland has administered 152,129 first doses of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the state’s most recent data.

Danielle Thorne, a high school geometry teacher in Alexandria, was one of the first teachers in the city to get vaccinated Tuesday as Northern Virginia moved into its next phase of distribution.

“I feel a lot more comfortable with the idea of coming back to school,” Thorne said afterward. “Doesn’t mean everyone will still choose to do that, I’m sure, but it definitely makes you feel a lot more comfortable.”

The next round includes not only essential workers, such as K-12 teachers and staff members, but also people living in group settings such as homeless shelters, and those 75 and older.

Alexandria Health Director Stephen Haering said demand for the vaccine from older adults has been high. The city has roughly 8,200 people over the age of 75, Haering said, and more than 1,300 of them have been registered.

“The uptake has been 85 to 95 percent,” he said.

Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.

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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