WASHINGTON — The District of Columbia and Arlington County are both observing increases in their COVID community levels as the BA.2 subvariant continues to spread across the country.
On April 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared D.C. had a “low” COVID community level. However, on Wednesday, DC Health reported between the week of April 3 and April 9, that the District had reached a medium COVID community level.
According to the CDC, the term “community level” is a tool to help communities decide what preventative steps they should take to abate COVID spread. The CDC says it determines low, medium, and high community levels by looking at the percent of hospital beds being used by patients with COVID, the rate of new hospital admissions in the population, and the rate of new COVID cases in the community.
The CDC now reserves COVID community transmission level data for healthcare facility use only.
While a medium COVID community level suggests a community is experiencing a moderate level of impact on its healthcare system and a moderate level of disease severity, DC Health’s own data shows hospitalizations due to COVID have stayed low in the District.
DC Health data shows the percent of COVID-positive cases who were hospitalized due to COVID has been zero percent since the week of March 13. The amount of new weekly hospital admissions due to COVID, among D.C. residents, per 100,000 people, has also been zero since March 13.
However, DC Health did report an uptick in its weekly COVID case rate among residents, per 100,000 people.
For the week of April 3, D.C. experienced a weekly COVID case rate of 204.2, which was up from 115.3 during the prior week. D.C.’s COVID case rate is the highest it has been since the omicron variant surge began to tail off the week of January 30.
"Although we're seeing more cases on a weekly basis, those individuals are not experiencing severe illness right now in our community," said DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt last week.
The only community in the D.C. region the CDC has identified as having a medium COVID community level is Arlington County.
In Arlington, the latest CDC data shows new COVID admissions, per 100,000 people, are 1.9 weekly. One percent of staffed inpatient beds in Arlington are also in use by patients with COVID.
However, like D.C., Arlington has seen a sizeable increase in its weekly COVID case rate. The county’s case rate is now 206.47, per 100,000 people.
Arlington County's Public Health Division [ACPH] released a statement regarding the CDC’s decision to identify Arlington County as having a medium community COVID level on Wednesday.
“Ongoing transmission and recent increased testing contributed to the rise in cases as well as the delayed reporting of cases that are over 10 days old,” the statement reads.
ACPH said there has been a 16 percent increase in the number of Arlington residents who have gotten tested compared to the previous week, which it believes is related to people preparing ahead for Spring Break and religious holidays.
ACPH added that there was also some delayed reporting of test results from before March which keeps being reported in the county’s current data numbers.
“Fortunately, our Washington, D.C. metropolitan area hospital systems have the capacity to respond should there be a need due to COVID-19, especially because our area enjoys high rates of vaccination among those 5 and older,” ACPH’s statement reads.
Dr. Stuart Ray, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, says people do not need to stay away from places like Arlington or D.C. if they have higher COVID transmission rates than surrounding communities. However, he said locals should use still caution to prevent spreading the disease.
“I think it's just always good to think about the most vulnerable people that you interact with,” he said. “And, that to the extent that you can protect those people, it's sort of a very human responsibility to try to be responsible about trying not to spread infections. And, so, I just hope people will continue to be cautious.”
Even if a person gets COVID and has little to no symptoms, Ray points out they should always remember it is possible to develop virus symptoms that last weeks or months after their initial infection.
“It is still a possibility with a mild infection, which is another reason for people to think about maybe being a little more cautious when there's a growing surge going on,” he said.
In addition, it is also possible the level of COVID spread is being underestimated across the country, according to Dr. Scott Gottlieb. The former FDA commissioner and Pfizer board member spoke to Margaret Brennan on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday and said many people are testing at home and not getting definitive PCR tests where their results would be reported to government agencies.
“I think that we're dramatically undercounting cases,” he said. “We're probably only picking up one in seven or one in eight infections. So, when we say there are 30,000 infections a day, there's probably closer to a quarter of a million infections a day.”
So far, Ray said he has not been surprised by the subvariant’s rapid spread across the Northeast.
“The pattern in this pandemic has been the population centers, areas where people travel and interact intensely, tend to be the places that are the leading edges of surges,” he said. “So, we've seen a big rise in New York in past weeks and other areas on the eastern seaboard. And, so, it's not surprising to me that areas around Washington DC would also be on the leading edge of a surge.”
In Washington, Howard University recently announced it planned to have its undergraduates revert to online classes for the rest of the semester. While institutions like Georgetown University and American University have reinstated indoor masking policies amid the subvariant surge.
Ray said communities are now finding themselves in tricky positions when working to figure out how to best mitigate the virus’ spread.
“I think at an institutional or municipal level, there are difficult calculations to make about what's going to be most effective in terms of messaging,” he said. “And, in terms of mandates, people are pretty fatigued of mandates, I think, as all of us have recognized. And, so, there's a management of risk that an institution or a municipality has to deal with.”