Thursday, December 03, 2020

Smithsonian museums, zoo to close as coronavirus caseload in D.C. region hits record for 16th day

Nov 20. 2020
The Judiciary Square testing site in Washington had lengthy waits Nov. 18 for people seeking coronavirus tests. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
The Judiciary Square testing site in Washington had lengthy waits Nov. 18 for people seeking coronavirus tests. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
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By The Washington Post · Dana Hedgpeth, Ovetta Wiggins, Peter Hermann · NATIONAL, HEALTH, SCIENCE-ENVIRONMENT, HEALTH-NEWS

The greater Washington region reported more than 5,000 new coronavirus infections Thursday - a record for a single day - with weeks of sustained increases prompting the Smithsonian Institution to close facilities that had reopened to the public.

The Judiciary Square testing site in Washington D.C. was extremely busy on Nov. 18. People exiting reported wait times of two and a half hours. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin

Maryland, Virginia and D.C. reported 5,077 new cases Thursday amid a national surge that has seen several states set records in recent days. It lifted the Washington region's seven-day average number of cases to 4,109 - about twice the number being reported at the end of October.

It's the 16th straight day that the region's average daily number of cases has hit a record.

The Smithsonian Institution cited the caseload rise Thursday while announcing it will temporarily close eight facilities in the Washington region that had reopened. It did not announce a reopening date, but officials said the closure will last at least through January.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III said the decision to close the museums and National Zoo was a precaution, adding that caseloads are projected to rise after Thanksgiving, typically a busy time for the museums.

The Smithsonian began reopening July 24, when the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., welcomed back visitors after four months.

The closure is the latest in new restrictions added across the Washington region as caseloads have jumped. D.C. Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday that she would impose new restrictions "soon" to combat the rise in cases.

Virginia and Maryland - as well as several of Maryland's most populous jurisdictions - also have reimposed pandemic-related restrictions in recent days.

Maryland reported a record 2,910 new cases Thursday, shattering the previous high set five days before. It lifted the seven-day average number of cases in the state to 2,119 - the 16th consecutive daily record - which is triple the average of the final days of October. Maryland also reported 21 additional deaths.

Virginia reported 1,954 new cases Thursday, sending its seven-day average to a record 1,823 daily infections. The state also recorded 36 new fatalities.

D.C.'s 213 new infections Thursday lifted its seven-day average to 167 daily cases, approaching the record of 194, set May 6. The city also reported two new fatalities.

D.C. police this week said they have asked all members of the department who worked during demonstrations in the city Saturday to get tested for the coronavirus. A department spokesman said Wednesday it is too early to know of any spikes in positive cases tied to the event.

Thousands of people in support of President Donald Trump - many not wearing masks or distancing themselves from others - gathered and marched at a rally that started Saturday afternoon and went into the night.

Counterdemonstrators also attended, with the two sides engaged in yelling and fights that police were forced to break up.

Police say 302 sworn officers in the 3,800-member department have tested positive for the coronavirus since March 24. One officer has died. As of Tuesday, 38 officers were out with positive coronavirus tests, and an additional 85 were quarantined out of precaution.

While coronavirus infections continue to rise in the Washington region, the spike in cases has been lower than in much of the country. On Thursday, only Vermont, Maine and Hawaii had a seven-day average caseload lower than that of Virginia and D.C., although Maryland's rate was higher.

Amanda Castel, a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said current successes are partly the result of measures for travel, mask-wearing and testing that were put in place earlier in the pandemic.

Maine, for example, did well controlling the virus over the summer and required quarantining with ample testing available, she said. Hawaii had strict travel measures, Castel said.

In the Washington region, she credited state and local health officials with generally moving slowly in lifting restrictions.

"They were conservative in their phasing and reopening and watching their numbers before making a decision to reopen in phases," Castel said. "That probably made a difference in keeping our rates lower for a longer period of time."

Still, she said the region is seeing a spike that she expects will continue as the holidays approach and people increasingly move activities indoors. She urged the public to avoid travel and to spend Thanksgiving only with those in one's own household.

Castel blamed part of the recent rise in cases on fatigue with following safety protocols such as social distancing, wearing masks and staying at home. The national curve of new cases is far from flat - mostly turning vertical, she noted - and the Washington region is "unfortunately catching up with other states."

"Our numbers are trending in the wrong direction," she said. "We're in a worse place than we were even back in March. It's time to start scaling back activities so we can control it as much as we can."

The pandemic is continuing to ravage rural areas that often were spared during the earliest days of the pandemic. In Western Maryland, 10 employees at a youth-detention center have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, a state union representing the workers said Thursday.

Union leaders say the state is not responding quickly enough to the outbreak at Backbone Youth Center in Garrett County. They are urging Maryland's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed to provide resources to slow the spread of the virus, including personal protective equipment for staff and a location for the youth to quarantine.

Garrett County, with fewer than 30,000 residents, is a recent hotspot for the virus. The county's seven-day average number of new infections stood Thursday at 28, up from three at the start of the month. While the state's seven-day test positivity rate has jumped to 6.82%, the rate is more than double in Garrett, at 14.2%.

The employees who are positive represent nearly one-third of the workers the union represents at the facility.

"The lack of action is only worsening the outbreak and risking unnecessary death of the youth and our members," AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said in a statement.

Moran called on Abed to reopen the Garrett Children's Center to provide space for youth to quarantine during the outbreak.

Due to the outbreak, there are no supervisors at the site and six front line workers in charge of 14 youth, according to the union. Union officials said youth at the facility were scheduled to be tested Thursday and 20 workers are awaiting results.

A spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During a Tuesday news conference, Hogan said the hospitals in Western Maryland have reached capacity. He announced the state Department of Health issued an order allowing hospitals to transfer patients to hospitals with more beds available.

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