What Does The Arrival Of New Coronavirus Variants Mean For The D.C. Region? Experts warn that the variants could reverse the current decline in cases, but local leaders aren't considering adding any new restrictions.
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What Does The Arrival Of New Coronavirus Variants Mean For The D.C. Region?

The U.K. and South African coronavirus variants have been identified in the D.C. region. Anupam Nath/AP Photo hide caption

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Anupam Nath/AP Photo

New coronavirus variants are cropping up across the U.S. — including in the D.C. region.

While local leaders have acknowledged the serious threat variants pose to the region's case trends, new restrictions aren't coming for now. Instead of shutting down, officials are repeating the same messaging that residents heard for the past 11 months — stay home when you can, wear a mask, social distance — and pushing to keep businesses open, leaving it to residents to decide what activities they feel comfortable with.

The variants, believed by experts to be more transmissible than other strains of the virus, have wreaked havoc in other parts of the world. The U.K. variant prompted a national lockdown in England in early January; a South African variant has plunged the country into an out-of-control surge; and in Brazil — the country with the second-highest death toll in the world, and that largely believed the worst had already passed — a variant is again ravaging the nation, in some cases reinfecting people who already survived the virus.

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Research hasn't proved the three variants now circulating in the U.S. to be more lethal than other strains, but experts say their emergence puts the country in the "eye of the hurricane": If the spread of new variants outpaces the rate of vaccinations, cases could spike again this spring, and jeopardize the progress of vaccination rollouts.

After infections soared in early January, cases in the D.C. region have significantly declined in recent weeks. Amanda Castel, an epidemiologist at George Washington University, described this current moment as a "nexus" of the pandemic — where continuing that downward trend of cases is crucial, and limiting variant spread is key to preserving the progress of vaccines.

"As we've been saying all along, since March of last year, it's really important that people practice these behaviors that we know can reduce the risk of transmission and infection," Castel said. "It's paramount now. We have highly effective vaccines, we have a really great tool at our disposal, but we want to make sure that that tool is still effective and can be used accordingly."

In Maryland, three cases of the South African coronavirus variant have been identified — two in Montgomery County, and one case in Baltimore. The state also reported the U.K. variant in two Anne Arundel County residents in January, and Prince George's County health director Ernest Carter told DCist there has been one case of the U.K. variant identified in the county.

Virginia has reported four cases of the U.K. variant in the Northern region and one case of the South African variant in the eastern portion of the commonwealth. In some of those instances, officials said that the cases were not linked to travel — meaning the transmission of the variant likely came from community spread. D.C. has not reported any variant cases, but due to sampling limitations the virus could be circulating undetected, according to a D.C. Health spokesperson.

Yet unlike at other pivotal points in the pandemic, local leaders aren't tightening restrictions on businesses in the wake of these strains emerging, even as experts warn of possibly darker days to come. Indoor dining at 25% capacity became legal again in D.C. in late January. Montgomery County lawmakers voted on Tuesday to reopen restaurants at 25% indoor capacity later this month, And in Virginia, indoor dining is permitted with no capacity limit. Gyms around the region are open for limited patrons, and students are returning to schools.

In an email to DCist, D.C. Health stated that it would continue to use "established metrics" to determine if any rollbacks of certain phased reopening measures are necessary. Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, the Fairfax County Health Department's Director for Epidemiology and Population Health, said he is unaware of any new restrictions being considered by county officials. Spokespeople for health departments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties also said no new restrictions are currently in the works for their jurisdictions.

In a meeting last week about reopening indoor dining with Montgomery County councilmembers, Earl Stoddard, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, seemed to indicate that the responsibility is now with residents to gauge their comfort level with risk, as officials move to keep businesses afloat.

"Just because something is permitted does not mean it's a good idea," he said during the meeting, but emphasized the county's position in navigating public health risk with the financial health of local businesses.

The region isn't alone in this stance; nationwide, governors are easing or maintaining current COVID-19 restrictions as infections decline, despite 38 states reporting cases of variants.

But the promising trends in case counts right now could quickly reverse if a variant spreads enough to become the "dominant strain" in a community, Castel said, and compromise the vaccine rollouts.

The more the virus spreads, the more likely it will continue to mutate and possibly evade vaccines. According to Castel, it's likely that new coronavirus vaccines may need to be developed annually — much like a flu shot. Drug companies Moderna and Pfizer have both said that their FDA-approved vaccines are only slightly less effective in protecting against all symptoms caused by the U.K. and South African variants, but manufacturers are planning to create booster shots to improve the efficacy of vaccines. Already, South Africa has paused its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after a study found it provided "minimal" protection against the variant.

"When variant viruses get that competitive advantage, [when] they are spread more easily — then they can quickly become that primary strain of virus that's circulating," Castel said. "And that's what we want to prevent as much as possible. If we can get the spread under control, then obviously, we'll be less likely to see those mutations."

As for when — or if — variants become "dominant "strains," local officials said it can be hard to predict, but emphasized the importance of residents following safety precautions.

Schwartz, from the Fairfax County Health Department, says that while the county hasn't reported a variant yet, it uses a model from the University of Virginia to predict infection trends. According to the model, even if more cases of the variant are identified, cases overall will continue to decline if current mitigation efforts are maintained. But if residents relax their precautions as variants spread, the model predicts that cases in the Arlington and Alexandria region could peak at more than 16,000 cases per week by May. (The model notes that it's difficult to predict variant spread, however, given the fact that cases are likely going undetected.)

"People may be tired of the control measures and want to spend time with family and friends; and they may see that we are past our recent peak or that many people have been vaccinated and figure they can relax," Schwartz wrote in an email to DCist. "We need to guard against this and continue emphasizing to our community that with new variants spreading and not having yet reached a level of immunity in the population that would affect transmission, we cannot relax mitigation measures and need to continue to effectively do masking, social distancing, limiting contact with others, washing hands and staying home when sick."

Meanwhile, local health officials stress that despite the roller coaster of restrictions limiting dining, business, and recreation, they believe it's up to individuals to stay safe.

During a press briefing last week, a reporter asked Montgomery County officials why they did not follow Gov. Larry Hogan's less restrictive indoor dining directive (which allows 50% capacity) and "entrust the members of Montgomery County to do what is safe for their families."

"That's ultimately what the policy we're putting forth is doing," the county's health director, Travis Gayles, replied. "We haven't created a policy that mandates you follow what I do. Our job, and what we have done consistently throughout the pandemic, is to provide guidance to our residents to say, 'hey, if this activity is open, based upon the best evidence that we have, here are the parameters that are put into place to attempt to maximize your safety when doing those particular activities.'"

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt echoed a similar point last week, noting that much about variants is unknown, and that the trajectory of variant spread will depend on how well the city adheres to the measures that were set nearly a year ago.

"How well we do with wearing our mask, keeping our distance, making good choices about the activities that we are participating in could help [limit variant spread], but that's not something I can predict with a great level of certainty," Nesbitt said. She has not mentioned when or if the city would consider adding additional business restrictions in the wake of the variants.

Optimistically, Castel said that all of the current precautions like mask-wearing and maintaining distance are still effective in stopping the spread of variants. Like many experts, Castel said that double masking, or increasing the quality of masks, is one added safety measure residents can adopt to protect from variants — in addition to simply staying home as much as possible.

"[Our current cases] are not great, but they are trending in the right direction," Castel says. "We don't want to lose that game."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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