By The Washington Post · Rebecca Tan, Erin Cox
Maryland and Virginia officials said they expect their first shipment of vaccines in mid-December, although members of the general public will likely have to wait until the spring to receive doses.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, R, who spoke at the opening of a Board of Public Works meeting, reiterated that the first vaccinations will go to health-care workers, then employees at nursing homes, where the virus has made a deadly resurgence. He acknowledged that some residents in the state might be skeptical of getting the vaccine, but noted that health-care experts - those who know the most about the disease - will be first in line.
"The hope is that 70 percent of the population will take the vaccine," he said. "If we can get to that, hopefully we can squash the pandemic."
According to the federal government, Maryland's first vaccine shipment will contain 150,000 doses, which will cover half the state's health-care workers, Gov. Larry Hogan, R, said Tuesday.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, echoed similar concerns Wednesday, saying the 70,000 doses his state expects to receive this month will fall short of what is needed for even the highest-priority recipients.
The first in line in Virginia will be health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, which includes about 500,000 people, Northam said. Essential workers and medically vulnerable individuals are likely to be in the second cohort.
Northam invoked his credentials as a pediatrician to vouch for the safety of the vaccine, but added that until it is readily available to the general public, residents should continue wearing masks and observing physical distancing.
"Be more careful than you think you need to be, especially with the holidays coming up," he said.
D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said earlier this week the city would receive an estimated 8,000 doses of the vaccine in its first shipment - a 10th of what is needed to vaccinate 80,000 health-care workers in the city. Nesbitt said city officials are petitioning the federal government not to tie D.C.'s share of vaccines to its population since many health-care workers live outside the city and commute in for work.
The seven-day average of new daily infections Wednesday across D.C., Maryland and Virginia was 4,671 - lower than the record high of 4,989 last week, but more than double the peak caseload during the first wave of the virus in the spring.
Local officials, including D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, have warned that new infections are likely to increase in the coming weeks because of the number of people who traveled or gathered with friends and family over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations and fatalities, which tend to lag spikes in cases, also are trending upward across the region. Maryland reported 42 deaths Wednesday - the highest number since June - while D.C. and Virginia reported five and 20 deaths, respectively.
In southwest Virginia, where cases have been surging, the Ballad Health hospital system has suspended elective surgeries so it can better handle an influx of patients. Hospitals are not running out of bed space, officials say, but there's a growing shortage of staff. The state is looking into whether paramedics or members of the state's Medical Reserve Corps can help, said Daniel Carey, the state's secretary of Health and Human Resources.
In Montgomery County, Maryland's most populous jurisdiction, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients reached 17.7 percent Wednesday, indicating "very high risk" of community transmission, according to the county's coronavirus website. The suburb has about one-quarter of its hospital beds unfilled, but that could change if smaller jurisdictions in the region start to hit their maximum capacity.
"Filling our hospitals may depend on what happens in other areas," Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, said at a news conference Wednesday. He said the county is still "trending in the wrong direction" but stopped short of issuing more restrictions.
"We're not an island," he said, noting that when Montgomery tried to shut down private schools in the fall, state officials intervened, effectively barring them from doing so. "If we do things by ourselves - and we very well might - it won't be as effective as it should be … I continue to argue for a regional approach."
In the past week, Montgomery's test positivity rate increased from 4.7% to 5.6%. Health officials acknowledged the county is experiencing testing delays because of the deluge of people who sought tests before or after Thanksgiving travel. Such delays, they noted, are also happening across the country.
The virus continues to spread disproportionately among people working in-person at jobs deemed essential, county health officer Travis Gayles said. Some of those workers don't have adequate health insurance to seek care when ill, and others are wary of being tested in fear of having to quarantine, losing their source of income, officials said.
When it comes to vaccine distribution, Elrich said the federal government should ensure those essential workers, including bus drivers and grocery store workers, are prioritized.
Elsewhere in Maryland, Anne Arundel County police are investigating an assault on two retail employees who tried to ask patrons to wear masks.
On Saturday evening, a manager at the Bowl America along Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie asked several male patrons to leave because they were not wearing face coverings, which are mandatory. After the manager escorted the group of eight men out, police said one of them pushed the worker to the ground and others kicked him. A second employee also was assaulted by the group when he came out to assist the manager, police said.
The manager was taken to a hospital with minor injuries. Officials said they are trying to find the group of men, who fled the scene before police arrived.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said the incident made him "just plain angry," adding that police would do everything to find them.
"No front-line worker in any business in this county should have to endure this kind of assault," he said.