Since easing mask mandates and other restrictions earlier this year, local government leaders have told residents that those trying to avoid the virus should monitor public health data to assess personal risk. But district health departments are providing far less information to the public than they were regularly doing until this winter. Even health departments don’t know much now about who has tested positive for the virus, because many people can now test themselves at home.
“We ask that you make your own decisions regarding risks, but we don’t give you the tools to do so,” said Neil J. Segal, associate professor of health policy at the University of Maryland. “…the sad truth is that there is no longer a good set of metrics that you can look at to measure your risk today instead of the last week or two. What we have done is we are forcing people to rely on their intuition.”
As of Thursday morning, the seven-day average in the past week was up 54 percent in the county, 43 percent in Maryland and 27 percent in Virginia.
These rates, driven by the omicron’s BA.2 variant, are well below the staggering caseload generated by the previous omicron variant that hit the region hard in December and January. But public health experts say they expect BA.2 to continue to increase the number of cases.
Some local universities, including American and George Washington, have Mask Requirement It fell when the first omicron wave subsided. Philadelphia announced this week that its citywide mandate to conceal indoor spaces will return, which raises questions for officials in the metropolitan area about whether their jurisdictions would do the same. So far, no one has.
Montgomery County officials said Wednesday that they are not considering plans to reauthorize. Interim health official James Bridgers said he expects cases to peak and plateau in the highly-vaccinated county without causing significant increases in hospitalizations or deaths, although officials are prepared to change course quickly, especially if case rates rise after schools return from Spring break.
“We’re really worried, because at some point, you can’t just let this thing run unchecked,” said Mark Ellrich, Montgomery County Executive (D-D).
Some government officials are themselves ill with the virus, having avoided it for the first two years.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (Democrat) and Kenyan Assemblyman R McDuffy (D) both contracted the virus earlier this month; Both said their symptoms were mild. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Jeffrey C. Mackay described his symptoms as “uncomfortable but manageable.”
When Arlington County Superintendent Matt de Ferrante (D) fell ill, he sent a message to residents, citing a sharp increase in cases in Arlington and urging people to wear masks and get vaccinated. “We know, and I can tell you firsthand, that you don’t want to catch Covid,” he wrote.
Sehgal said he urges his neighbors and students to heed such anecdotal evidence of the high number of cases. “Think about your social circle, about how many people are currently infected in your network or who have been in the past week,” he said.
The region, like many jurisdictions, no longer reports the number of new cases reported each day, and has also stopped reporting a lot of the abundant data it used to publish on hospitalizations and other metrics. Its website now features a much smaller set of metrics, including a weekly status rate per 100,000 residents. That number has increased every week over the past month, from 51 cases in the week of March 6 to 204 in the week of April 3, the latest report reported.
“How does that help me today, two weeks later, knowing what happened in March in the county? All I can say for sure is that we are three times worse today than we were at the beginning of the month,” said Segal. But the seven-day average number of cases no longer seems accurate to me,” he added, due to the proliferation of at-home tests that were never reported to the government.
Officials say they still have ways to measure levels of transmission in the community. In Montgomery, for example, the Department of Health requires physicians to report positive test results from patients using home kits, and the county is closely monitoring data from places like schools and nursing homes that regularly run PCR tests. As of this week, outbreaks in those clusters have not increased significantly, said Sean O’Donnell, the county’s director of emergency preparedness.
“Throughout the pandemic, we haven’t had the full picture,” O’Donnell said at a press briefing Wednesday. He noted that when COVID-19 first arrived, testing was not readily available. The virus can spread asymptomatically, indicating that large groups of people are unwittingly carrying and spreading it. And in late 2021, a cyber attack paralyzed Maryland’s COVID-19 data reporting system for weeks.
“There have always been more cases than our data represents,” O’Donnell said. “The question now is, how much have I got carried away with the very huge distribution of tests at home?”
Because people often use a PCR test to confirm test results at home, a bump in PCR test positivity will still indicate a bump in community transmission, said Earl Stoddard, the county’s associate administrative director.
Stoddard added that there are other metrics and forms of monitoring that indicate case rates, such as the number of students who are absent in school or the number of county workers declaring illness.
“People interact with the test result in a way that is more important than having the test results on our back end,” he said.
Johns Hopkins University public health professor Crystal Watson noted the good news: “Although we know we’re missing a lot of cases, we’re not seeing a huge rise in hospitalizations.”
Watson noted a number of factors that might make the current BA.2-driven phase take a different path than the winter Omicron wave.
On the one hand, Omicron inspired some to get vaccinated or get a booster, which means that people are now more protected. And Omicron has infected so many people—some experts estimate that more than half of the US population has—that there is more innate immunity, too, although immunity may expire. After only 90 days. Moreover, Watson noted, warm weather means that people do more activities outside, which reduces the risk of disease.
But parts of the metropolitan area have spread Tightening of coronavirus restrictions, including vaccine requirements for dining in restaurants, to combat omicron the first time. There was no such mobilization against BA.2, which could allow the sub-helper to spread through public spaces more effectively.
“We don’t have these mitigation measures like we did in the winter,” Watson said. She praised Philadelphia’s proactive revival of the mask mandate.
“Personally I think that’s a good way, because with that you’re being protective, and you’re not waiting until the situation is so bad that it really affects hospitals,” she said.
Americans are not in an endless cycle of variable after variable that requires masking and social distancing: Increasing immunity over time, especially as more of the world gets vaccinated, will lessen the impact of the coronavirus, Watson said.
But regardless, she and Segal said, they may always wear masks in some places during the winter flu season to avoid getting sick.
Theo Armos contributed to this report.
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