By The Washington Post · Erin Cox, John D. Harden, Fenit Nirappil, Laura Vozzella ·
The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia surpassed another grave milestone in the coronavirus crisis Wednesday, as the tally of confirmed cases surged beyond 10,600, and Maryland reported more than 20 deaths in a single day for just the second time.
So far, 227 people had died in the two states and the District combined as of Wednesday morning, as hospitalizations for covid-19 continued to rise and experts said the area has yet to reach the peak of the pandemic.
In just the District metro region, the number of confirmed cases climbed 76 percent in 24 hours, from 494 to 869. The jarring spike was driven by Maryland's Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where the number of confirmed cases rose 179 percent to 507 patients diagnosed with the virus.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said the statewide spike - a record - has dual explanations: rising infections plus ramped-up testing that identified patients whose samples were collected a week or more ago. Commercial labs are beginning to "clear their backlog of tests," he said, adding that the situation appears likely to worsen.
"This virus continues to spread in every jurisdiction, and as I have been saying for weeks, the Baltimore-Washington corridor has become an emerging hotspot," the governor tweeted.
Leaders across the region announced new efforts to mitigate the sprawling public health and economic impact of the crisis.
District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, shut down golf courses and tennis courts and set new restrictions on food shopping. Farmers and fish markets must shift to "grab and go" to operate, and grocery stores must both limit the number of shoppers inside and instruct them to cover their faces under the mayor's order.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, announced a two-week delay of the congressional primary election scheduled for early June and asked the Virginia General Assembly to postpone May's special and municipal elections until November.
"Elections are the foundation of democracy, and voting is a fundamental right," Northam said. "But no one should have to choose between protecting their health or casting a ballot."
On the recommendation of state health officials, the National Park Service closed Shenandoah National Park. And Northam warned the outbreak could cost the state at least $2 billion over the next two years.
In Maryland, Health Secretary Robert Neall told a committee of lawmakers that the state had more than 1,100 ventilators available and "we've ordered a little bit more than twice that so that we'll have enough." Neall said about a quarter of Maryland's confirmed patients have been admitted to hospitals.
Neall also reiterated that senior care facilities have been hit hard by the virus. He said Wednesday that statewide, more than 600 cases - over 10 percent - are tied to nursing homes. Infections have been reported in 90 of the 230 facilities in the state.
The site of the state's worst outbreak, Pleasant View Nursing Home in Carroll County, has had three additional deaths, public health officials announced Tuesday. The virus has killed a total of 17 people at the home, officials said.
The Virginia facility at the center of that's state's largest outbreak also reported another death Wednesday. So far, the death toll at the Richmond-area long-term care facility Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center stands at 33.
As District officials search for as many as 3,600 extra beds to handle the expected surge, they said Wednesday that they had identified the Walter E. Washington Convention Center as a spot to send patients with mild symptoms or other medical problems while hospitals primarily treat severe covid-19 cases. Officials and local hospitals are evaluating about 38 locations to determine whether they are suitable for additional bed space.
"We continue to monitor the situation, particularly as we are preparing for a medical surge," Bowser said while presenting regional covid-19 data, adding that she has urged White House officials "to focus on the nation's capital and our region as a potential next surge area."
Bureaucrats, meanwhile, are swamped trying to steer unemployment benefits to the hundreds of thousands of workers in Maryland, the District and Virginia whose paychecks disappeared with the social distancing measures designed to blunt the virus's spread.
In Maryland, Virginia and the District, it can take three weeks to process unemployment claims. The District and Maryland saw more claims in March than in the entirety of 2019.
Bowser announced Wednesday that she would roughly double the staff processing unemployment claims to 200 people. Some checks are going out in two weeks or less, city officials said. To date, the District has paid 18,000 people nearly $7 million.
Officials also said it would take "at least three weeks" to update the District's unemployment system to increase benefits and allow claims from gig workers and independent contractors now eligible under federal relief legislation.
To help defray the economic damage to Virginia restaurants, Northam said he directed the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to allow businesses with a mixed-beverage license to sell mixed drinks through takeout or delivery "to help augment their revenue stream."
Across the country, leaders continue to say basic personal protective equipment is in short supply. In the District, first responders have roughly 20 percent of the supplies they say they need through August; health-care providers have a quarter, according to data released by the mayor's office Wednesday.
Eight additional members of the District Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department have tested positive for the coronavirus, the agency said Wednesday, bringing the total number of firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians who have contracted the virus to 46. Ten of them have recovered and returned to duty. District officials say the police and fire departments can each lose several hundred members without affecting service or response to emergency calls. The city says it has contingency plans in place should they fall short.
In all three jurisdictions, advocates and defense attorneys continued to seek the release of some nonviolent inmates and those nearing the end of their sentences, arguing that those in detention facilities are at increased risk of contracting the virus.
The District jail reported its highest one-day increase in positive virus cases Wednesday, adding nine more inmates to its tally of 37.
And 27 inmates in Virginia prisons filed a federal lawsuit against Northam and other officials alleging potential exposure to the coronavirus amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. One of those prisoners has tested positive.
"Many of these Plaintiffs suffer from similar high-risk health conditions such as compromised respiratory systems, immune systems, and poor heart conditions," attorney Elliott Harding wrote. "Other Plaintiffs find themselves similarly situated in that they are nonviolent offenders or have served a significant portion of their active sentence of incarceration with little time left before release."
There are 41 inmates, staff and contractors in the Virginia Department of Corrections system known to have the virus. Another plaintiff, according to the complaint, is missing a lung and suffering from pneumonia while held in a Richmond facility where three people have tested positive. His doctor said that if he is infected, he will probably die.
"Something's got to give, because time is ticking," Harding said in an interview.
The Northam administration faced a second new lawsuit this week, filed by a southwest Virginia man who claims the state's coronavirus restrictions violate his freedom to worship and asking for a temporary restraining order so he can go to church on Easter.
Larry Hughes, identified in his lawsuit as "a professing Christian who has regularly attended religious services for many years," filed his case Monday in Russell County Circuit Court. He argues that Northam's executive order limiting public or private gatherings to 10 people prevents him from attending church.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, defended Northam's executive orders in a brief filed late Tuesday, and Circuit Court Judge Michael Moore is expected to hold a hearing by phone on the case Thursday.
In District, the mayor tightened her stay-at-home order, establishing social distancing requirements at grocery stores and extending them to food halls and convenience stores. Many grocers had voluntarily implemented the measures, but the move comes after the city shut down a popular fish market on the Wharf that attracted crowds last weekend, despite signs warning people to stand six feet apart.
Bowser loosened her order in one respect: Rooftop decks on apartment buildings may reopen.
Even as the caseload grew, leaders were looking at ways to return to some form of normalcy after the peak passes.
LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of District Health, said Wednesday that the city was exploring the use of coronavirus antibody tests recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. She cautioned that the tests do not determine whether a person is currently infected but can show whether someone has been exposed to the virus.
"The science is still unclear as to whether or not if you have antibodies present in your body that means you are immune and cannot have infections in the future," Nesbitt said in a Wednesday call with the District Council. "If we start this antibody testing, it will help us determine where we are going to go with social distancing requirements."
In Maryland, Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former state health secretary, told state lawmakers he has helping develop a plan to ease up on social distancing requirements, including using dorms and hotels to quarantine patients who cannot be safely isolated at home.
- - -
The Washington Post's Keith L. Alexander, Rachel Chason, Jessica Contrera, Dana Hedgpeth, Peter Hermann, Gregory Schneider, Darran Simon and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.