The spread of COVID-19 has been felt throughout NoVA, as The New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker shows an exponential increase in positive cases. Loudoun, Prince William, and Fairfax counties, as well as Alexandria and Fairfax cities, each show more than a 100-percent increase in positive COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days. The City of Alexandria’s coronavirus webpage contains an appeal to residents to follow COVID-19 safety measures by identifying that approximately one in 20 Alexandria residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 have required hospitalization.
While vaccination rates have risen in recent months, surging COVID-19 cases have prompted NoVA municipalities to open a variety of testing sites.
Loudoun County has scheduled multiple free testing events open to all, without age or residency requirements, with future testing events to be announced week-to-week. Arlington County has four curative testing kiosks available. Fairfax County’s health department is expected to restart its testing through its mobile laboratory with dates to be announced for when it will be available.
Northern Virginia healthcare provider Inova opened a vehicle-side COVID-19 testing site for symptomatic individuals in the community in response to increasing cases. The Virginia Department of Health also offers a map or list of available local testing sites.
Additionally, Governor Ralph Northam announced January 6 that the Virginia Department of Health will open nine new Community Testing Centers to increase testing availability across the Commonwealth in the next few weeks. One of those sites will be in one of the two current vaccination sites in the Prince William Health District.
“Testing is a critical tool in our fight against COVID-19, and we must continue to everything we can do increase [sic] access,” said Northam. “As Virginians continue to grapple with a national shortage of rapid tests, expanding our (Polymerase Chain Reaction) capabilities will ensure more Virginians have access to free, reliable testing and can better protect themselves and their families.”
Each county, city, and municipality in Northern Virginia advocates for residents to remain cautious and aware of the surging cases of COVID-19 in the area. Each county and city webpage in the region asks residents to continue taking measures to safeguard from COVID-19, including wearing masks, social distancing, and advocating for vaccinations. There are also a number of precautionary steps each municipality identifies in addressing the spread of COVID-19.
The Alexandria Health Department provides an online worksheet for individuals to address what to do in case of testing positive or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and steps to address identifying close contacts in order to stem the viruses’ spread. Likewise, Fairfax County provides a sheet of contacts for COVID-19 screening, testing, and other information if desired that also lists recommendations for individuals that believe they may be COVID-19 positive by first checking for symptoms before calling a doctor, getting screened, giving a sample, and receiving test results.
The ongoing rise in positive COVID-19 cases has also caused some shifts in the health care sector. Sentra Healthcare announced it would postpone all hospital-based non-emergent surgeries, procedures, and diagnostic testing effective January 10, including at the Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center in Woodbridge. This decision was due to record-breaking surges in COVID-19 that has caused the hospitalization of COVID-19 patients in its facilities to more than double over the past week and more than quadruple within the last month.
“The current strain on all healthcare facilities is undeniable. We must balance the urgent need to care for large numbers of COVID-19 patients with what is being asked of our dedicated staff,” says Mike Gentry, Sentara Healthcare executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We cannot care for our community without first supporting our team members as they so expertly manage this large number of patients.”
Inova also reactivated its “emergency status” on January 3 in response to the increasing COVID-19 cases. As part of this action, Inova reopened its COVID-19 Coordination Center and hospital command centers.
Citing the rise of COVID-19 cases in the Fairfax Health District, the Fairfax County Health Department will no longer provide clearance letters to individuals to return to work or school following COVID-19 infection or exposure. The agency will also cease providing written communications that exclude people from work or school due to illness or exposure.
“As our number of cases has grown, we have had more requests for clearance letters during a time when we must focus our case interviewing resources on groups of people in highest risk settings and those who may experience most serious complications from COVID-19. By using the CDC guidance, individuals can safely return to their daily life following COVID-19 infection,” said Shawn Kiernan, chief of communicable disease, Fairfax County Health Department. “We encourage all employers and school systems to follow CDC return-to-work/school criteria in lieu of requesting paperwork to do so.”
In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public emergency for the city on December 20 and reinstated an indoor mask requirement that will remain in effect through January 31. Bowser further addressed the rise of COVID-19 in the area by issuing an order on December 22 that requires proof of vaccination to be shown for entry to enter indoor facilities within the city. Houses of worship, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, pharmacies, medical offices, urgent care providers, hospitals, and big box stores and retailers are not subject to the order, however. The order goes into effect January 15 for all individuals, 12 and older, to show proof of at least one dose for entry. Individuals, 12 and older, must be fully vaccinated by February 15 to enter indoor facilities.
Beginning January 15, businesses will display signs citing this latest order and will be required to check patrons’ vaccination status prior to entry. Proof of vaccination may be shown with a physical copy of an individual’s CDC vaccination card, a digital copy or photo of a CDC vaccination card, or through a COVID-19 certification vaccination app, such as VaxYes or CLEAR.
Throughout the DMV, masks are still required on all public transit, including rail and commuter bus systems. In August, the Transportation Security Agency extended the face mask requirement for individuals for all transportation networks in the country through March 18.
In schools, Virginia law requires all public schools to offer in-person instruction for students during the 2021-2022 school year, as possible, in accordance with recommended CDC strategies. Masks are required, though, for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors age 2 and older to wear a mask indoors in private and public PreK-12 school settings, regardless of vaccination status.
Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, however, has repeatedly reaffirmed his opposition of any mandates requiring masks in schools, but has also stated that he would not attempt to block localities from requiring them.
Scott Fields is a freelance writer and photographer based in Arlington.
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