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D.C. to ease restrictions, change vaccine sign-ups as cases slowly fall in region

Dora Taylor-Lowe, communications director for the D.C. Department of Human Services, receives a coronavirus vaccination from nurse Juliet Dankwah at an outdoor tented clinic in February. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Previous versions of this article incorrectly said Montgomery County would decide whether to lift some capacity restrictions when 50 percent of adults have received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine. The threshold in the proposal is when 50 percent of all residents have received at least one dose.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser confirmed Monday that the city will ease some coronavirus-related restrictions in May and said the District is transitioning away from its preregistration system in favor of “high-capacity” walk-up vaccination sites.

With more than 237,000 residents now at least partially vaccinated, the city on Saturday will begin using 11 vaccination sites that don’t require an appointment, Bowser said. Hours and locations of the walk-up sites will be posted on VaccineFinder.org. Residents still can schedule appointments directly with city pharmacies, clinics and health-care providers, but D.C. will only accept preregistrations through its portal until Wednesday.

The changes come as the average numbers of new daily coronavirus cases and deaths continue to decline slowly in both the District and Virginia, and as a spike in cases in Maryland appears to be receding.

The District reported 55 new coronavirus cases on Monday and zero additional deaths; Maryland reported 557 cases and nine deaths; and Virginia reported
719 cases and 15 deaths.

Health officials credit the gradual reduction in cases and deaths at least in part to the growing percentage of the population that is vaccinated. In Montgomery County, officials will decide Tuesday whether to use vaccination levels as the basis for easing capacity limits and other virus-related restrictions in coming weeks and months.

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

Statewide, coronavirus cases in Maryland began to climb in March and reached a peak of more than 1,500 per day by mid-April, fueled by variants and a spike in infections among young people. The most dramatic spikes were in jurisdictions along the eastern portion of the state’s northern border with Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as in Baltimore City.

Nine days ago, the numbers started to fall to pre-surge levels across the state, although not to the same degree in Baltimore, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Maryland. Monday’s statewide tally of 557 new cases was the lowest since
March 2.

“Maryland is an interesting test case of vaccines — and vaccinations — working,” said Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “We were racing the variants, and we caught up. And we’re making more progress in vaccinating residents than we’re seeing the variants take hold.”

Some epidemiologists and public health doctors blamed the spike partially on Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to lift capacity restrictions for most businesses in early March. Jurisdictions such as Prince George’s and Montgomery counties that refused to relax the rules did not see a dramatic surge.

But Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) also refused to roll back capacity restrictions, and caseloads spiked there anyway.

Adam Abadir, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Health Department, said that the city still has widespread community transmission and that the mobility data tracked by the health department “suggests that people are traveling in ways that approach pre-pandemic times.”

Hogan (R) dismissed any link between lifting the restrictions and the spike, saying that variants fueling surges in northeastern states were crossing Maryland’s borders. As the trend reversed, the governor credited the state’s vaccination campaign, which, as of Monday, delivered at least one shot to more than 42 percent of residents, according to state data.

Charlie Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, offered a broader explanation Monday. “There are a number of factors that may be at play, including the pace of vaccination, the willingness of Marylanders to follow basic health guidelines and the changing of the seasons,” he said in an email on Monday.

Men lag women in coronavirus vaccinations, especially in Black communities

Maryland and Virginia health officials have told providers to resume inoculations with the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, citing safety clearance from federal regulators after a pause to investigate rare cases of women developing dangerous blood clots after getting the vaccine.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is one of our most important tools in the ongoing fight to prevent hospitalizations and deaths associated with COVID-19,” Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health services, said in a statement issued Saturday.

More than 118,000 J&J vaccine doses have been delivered but not administered in Maryland, according to state reports. Gischlar said the state “will determine whether and how to reintroduce” the doses at mass vaccination sites in coming days.

Danny Avula, the Virginia vaccine coordinator, said in a statement that scrutiny by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration “should instill confidence in the system.”

Virginia has about
150,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hand through the state allocation and the federal pharmacy program, said Dena Potter, spokeswoman for Virginia’s vaccination program.

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said the District would not resume Johnson & Johnson vaccinations until the CDC finalized its guidance this week, including possible recommendations for a warning label and new clinical processes.

Bowser cited the District’s declining case rate and continued vaccine uptake as the reason she would ease restrictions starting Saturday. Restaurants will be able to seat 10 people per table — up from six — and host live music outside in gardens, courtyards and sidewalk cafes.

Earlier this month, Bowser announced that nonessential retail businesses in D.C. would be able to operate at 50 percent capacity in May, up from 25 percent. On Monday, she confirmed weddings, business meetings and special events will be allowed indoors and outdoors starting Saturday, though special permission is needed for events with more than 250 people.

Theaters and concert venues will also be able to operate at
25 percent capacity, Bowser said, with a cap at 500 people. Capacity for places of worship was increased to 40 percent, though virtual and outdoor services are preferred.

Starting Saturday, indoor fitness classes can include up to
25 people, while gyms and fitness centers can operate at 50 percent capacity or 250 people. And swimming pools can open at 50 percent capacity in May, with no capacity limit on outdoor splash pads.

Bowser also said D.C. Public Schools had partnered with Audi Field to host outdoor graduations at the stadium between June 19 and June 24.

Asked about possibly loosening restrictions further in the summer, Bowser said her team was “focused” on July 4 but said the District could dial things up sooner or later than that depending on new infections. Nesbitt suggested the city may have reached “equilibrium” with vaccine demand and supply and said residents must encourage their friends and neighbors to get the shots.

“The way we get all the way back [to normal] is to crush this virus and get people vaccinated,” Bowser said. “We will likely have another forecast of what future activity could open — pending our vaccination levels and infections rates moving in the right direction.”

In Montgomery, the county council will vote Tuesday on a proposed order that removes some coronavirus restrictions when vaccinations reach certain levels. It says, for example, that when 50 percent of the population has received at least one dose, gathering limits may increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, and the cap on retail businesses may increase to 50 percent.

Deputy Health Officer James Bridgers said the county of 1 million has already exceeded the 50 percent, one-dose threshold.

Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said the reopening thresholds would “give people more transparency and predictability,” adding that private businesses have been asking for this framework for several months.

The county reported a test positivity rate last week of 2.45 percent — the second-lowest in the state.

“The fact that we’re doing so well is a direct result of the cautious but balanced approach that we’ve taken,” Hucker said. “The data only validates our approach.”

Nonetheless, Hucker added, county officials don’t feel comfortable fully aligning with the state’s reopening guidelines, which have removed capacity limits on most businesses. Montgomery’s proposed order states that the county would lift local restrictions only when 50 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Jenna Portnoy and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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