Several regional officials say they're still reviewing the CDC's new guidance on indoor masking as cases rise.
Alexandria, Virginia reached "substantial" COVID transmission rates Tuesday, prompting city officials to recommend that residents wear masks inside of public and private buildings, regardless of vaccination status.
The city's order follows new guidance from the CDC, which on Tuesday updated its guidance on masking to recommend that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in parts of the country with "high" or "substantial" virus transmission. Per the CDC's metrics, "substantial" transmission is any locality that reported 50-100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, or is reporting a positivity rate between 8% and 10%.
Nearly-two thirds of the country fits that definition –– including D.C., as of Wednesday afternoon.
According to Alexandria's most recent numbers, the city is now reporting an average count of 56 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days, prompting the updated mask guidance. But other jurisdictions across the region, like D.C., are playing a wait-and-see game before making any changes to masking or coronavirus restrictions, even as cases continue to steadily increase.
The regional uptick in COVID-19 cases and the looming possibility of new mask mandates marks a departure from the optimistic trends recorded throughout the spring and early summer, when COVID wards were closing down for lack of patients, and D.C. went a full two weeks with no deaths from disease.
As of Wednesday, D.C.'s caseload is six times what it was at the beginning of the month, with a seven-day average of 57 cases, up from an average of nine cases on July 1.
Before the CDC released updated data on Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference that officials are still reviewing case numbers and have not yet determined whether reinstating a mask mandate is necessary. (While the city's public health emergency expired on Sunday, Bowser extended its public emergency, which allows her to retain certain powers, like a mask mandate.)
"We are following public health guidance, [DC Health Director LaQuandra] Nesbitt and her team continue to review where we are, and if we need to do anything differently, and if we have a change of posture, we'll communicate that," Bowser said. "I have the authority with the existing emergency [order] to do that."
Bowser's statement followed a message from Nesbitt on Tuesday, prompted by the CDC's new guidance.
"We continue to learn about new variants, and these insights may require us to revisit other protective measures," Nesbitt said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon. "Wearing a mask in indoor public settings provides an additional layer of protection for those who are fully vaccinated — and continues to be one of the key ways to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, namely young children."
DC Health spokespeople did not immediately return DCist/WAMU's request for comment Wednesday afternoon about whether the CDC's updated data would lead to a new masking requirement.
Like D.C., Maryland and Virginia have seen case numbers increase — but state officials haven't made any moves towards reinstating restrictions yet.
Maryland reported a seven-day average of 314 cases as of Wednesday, up from 57 at the start of the month, though Maryland's state-wide transmission level is moderate, per the CDC.
"Maryland is one of the most vaccinated states in the country, which blunts the impact of the Delta variant," Mike Ricci, a spokesperson for Gov. Larry Hogan, told DCist/WAMU in a statement. "That said, we are very concerned about an increase in infections among the unvaccinated. Nearly everyone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 in Maryland over the last several weeks has been unvaccinated."
Montgomery County health officials report that the county's positivity rate is about 1.7%. Dr. Travis Gayles, the county's public health officer, says the county is concerned about the substantial transmission rates in surrounding localities and they're monitoring new case counts, transmission rates, hospitalizations, and vaccination rates. Gayles says they have the option to take several courses of action if the numbers don't improve.
"No one wants to have to implement restrictions of any kind," Dr. Earl Stoddard, the county's acting chief administrative officer, told reporters Wednesday. "We're hoping that the cases come back down...but at the same time we're thinking about the students coming back to schools at the end of August [and] we need to have an environment that supports them being successful."
Prince George's County saw 245 new COVID cases during the middle of July, according to county health data. That's a 78% increase from July 4 and three straight weeks in June with 85 new cases or fewer per week. Virginia, meanwhile, reported a seven-day average of 746 new cases on Wednesday, compared to 176 on July 1. According to the CDC's transmission rates, Fairfax County remains in the "moderate" transmission zones, but Loudoun County has been moved into the "substantial" zone as of Wednesday afternoon. Loudoun County spokespeople did not immediately return DCist/WAMU's request for comment on a new mask recommendation.
"At this time, the Virginia Department of Health is analyzing the CDC's guidance," a spokesperson for Virginia's health department wrote in a statement to DCist/WAMU. "Virginia's approach to COVID-19 has always been driven by science, and we continue to emphasize that the only way out of this pandemic is through vaccination."
The CDC's guidance followed new scientific findings showing that fully vaccinated individuals who contract the delta variant may transmit the virus to others.
While vaccine breakthroughs are rare, they are happening in the region. D.C.'s recent data on breakthrough infections (last updated on July 11) shows that 200 fully vaccinated residents have contracted COVID-19 since January, making up about 1% of all COVID-19 infections. As of July 21, Maryland reported about 2,500 post vaccine infections out of the more than 3.5 million fully vaccinated residents. In Virginia, fully vaccinated residents account for less than 1% of total COVID-19 cases.
Across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, about 50% of the total population is fully vaccinated.
Rachel Kurzius contributed reporting.