‘This is a public health emergency’: All Md. schools to close for 2 weeks; National Guard activated

Maryland is ramping up its response to the new coronavirus outbreak, including closing all public schools and banning public gatherings of 250 people. And, in Virginia, the governor declared a state of emergency.

Here’s the latest Thursday:

More Coronavirus News

Maryland Gov. Hogan escalates state’s response

Maryland is closing all public schools in the state from March 16 through March 27 in order to slow the spread of the growing coronavirus outbreak.

That’s one of several “major actions” being taken in the state.

While the schools are closed, all public school buildings and school buses will be cleaned and disinfected, said Karen Salmon, State Superintendent of Schools. She is also recommending that days previously scheduled for spring break be used for makeup days of the school closure.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said Thursday that his office will be in contact with the county’s school community regarding makeup days.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday that he is banning all public gatherings of 250 people, activating the National Guard, ordering all nonessential state government employees to work from home and closing the Port of Baltimore to passenger cruise ships.

“This is a public health emergency,” Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips said.

Hogan’s announcement came after officials announced the first known case of a patient being infected with coronavirus through what’s known as community transmission.

A Prince George’s County man in his 60s who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, had no known international travel or contacts with other infected individual, officials said Thursday. The man is currently hospitalized.

With community spread of the disease, Hogan said he expects the number of new cases to “dramatically and rapidly rise.”

He added: “For Marylanders, the actions that I have announced here today will be disruptive to your everyday lives. And they may sound extreme, and they may sound frightening. But they could be the difference in saving lives and helping keep people safe.”

Other actions Hogan announced included the closing of senior activity centers, extending the expiration dates of all licenses, permits and authorizations — including drivers, vehicle and professional licenses — directing hospitals to adopt new visitor policies, suspending all prison visits and delegating all non-essential and non-crisis functions of state government to the lieutenant governor.

Prince George’s County officials had announced the first community transmission case earlier Thursday.

Overall, a total of 12 people in Maryland have tested positive for the virus. All the other cases — including three previous ones in Prince George’s County — have been linked to the patients’ recent travel.

“We are in a different phase,” Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said during a news conference Thursday afternoon. “We’re concerned. We cannot trace at this moment like we could with the first three. And so, this means that we are in a different stage … We have to take extreme precaution at this point.”

In addition to the fourth new case in Prince George’s County, 12 firefighters in the county who responded to that patient may have been exposed to the virus, Alsobrooks said.

The firefighters are self-isolating at home and monitoring themselves for symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Hogan said the measures he announced do not mean that daily life should come to a halt. “Those businesses that are essential to society and community, including grocery stores and gas stations and restaurants should remain open.”

Phillips said that the measures aim to slow the spread of infection, protect vulnerable people and maintain essential services.

Following Hogan’s announcement, Montgomery County officials held a news conference to address what the county is doing.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the county is struggling with getting test kits. “We can’t test all the people we’d like to test.”

The county will follow state guidelines of limiting public gatherings to 250 people, and Elrich asked private groups and venues to observe these limits.

Elrich said that in addition to schools, which will be closed for two weeks starting on Monday, libraries and recreation facilities will be closed.

“We’re hoping that the federal and state government recognize that it would be wrong to put adults in a situation where they have to choose between taking care of their kids and not going to work and not earning the money they need to make a mortgage payment or rent,” Elrich said.

He called what’s happening a “national crisis” and said that he’s hoping that the federal government will step up with some form of income guarantees or protection for people so “somebody doesn’t stay home to take care of their kids and then discover that they’re getting evicted the next month.”

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, said Thursday that the White House needs to realize that “this crisis is real,” and he called for the White House and Congress to work on adopting a major economic response.

Warner believes that it was “shortsighted” for President Donald Trump to not have declared a national emergency, as doing so would have stabilized the financial markets rather than spooking them.

Warner is among a group of 34 Senate Democrats who sent a letter to Trump, urging quick passage of an economic stimulus package.

Virginia Gov. Northam also declares state of emergency

At a news conference earlier in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency to deal with the growing coronavirus outbreak.

State health officials announced several new cases Thursday, bringing the total number of patients testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, to 17. The total count includes two Virginians who traveled to Texas and tested positive for the virus there.

State health officials said all of the cases diagnosed in Virginia involved international travel or contacts with people who had already tested positive for the virus.

“The situation is fluid and it is changing rapidly,” Northam said Thursday afternoon. “Virginians should know that we have long-standing plans in place to deal with pandemic.”

The emergency declaration allows the governor to ease regulatory rules and more easily coordinate with federal officials. In addition, state-run conferences and large events over the next 30 days are being canceled, and Northam said state agencies are looking to “phase in” telework for state employees.

Health officials said they have enough test kits to currently perform 500 to 600 tests.

“It is clear, however, that the CDC supply chain is in fact limited,” Northam said. He said Virginia is considering developing its own test kits and looking at the possibility of drive-through testing.

In Fairfax County, where two of the new presumptive cases were confirmed, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay asked residents to look to trusted government sources when seeking information and to continue to follow basic health guidelines.

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand, who joined county officials in a news conference Thursday, said that the plan for schools is to monitor and work with health officials to look at the data to help guide with a tiered response.

Fairfax County announced late Thursday night that schools will be closed Friday. During the news conference earlier, Brabrand said that he would be communicating with the school community regarding a tiered approach.

“Fairfax County Public Schools is working very closely almost on a daily basis … working with the health officials in the county to bring us the latest information. And they have informed us that if we were to have a positive response, we would make a decision to close that school or schools were that was to happen,” Brabrand said earlier Thursday.

In a letter to students and faculty, Brabrand said the decision to close Friday came “to help ease parent, staff, and student anxiety.”

Earlier this week, the school system designated Monday, March 16 as a “staff development day/student holiday,” so that staff members can “prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the event of a school(s) closure.

Overall, nearly 40 people in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have tested positive for coronavirus.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

However, for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

2 more Virginia cases linked to Christ Church Georgetown

Of the 17 cases in Virginia, 10 of them are in Northern Virginia.

On Thursday, the Alexandria Health Department announced its first coronavirus case, and the Arlington Department of Health confirmed its second case.

Both new cases are tied to the expanding outbreak linked to Christ Church Georgetown in D.C. The church’s rector tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, becoming the first case in the District. Since then, several other cases in D.C. and Virginia have been linked to the church.

Alexandria health officials said the patient came into contact with a D.C. resident who now has a confirmed case of COVID-19, who recently spent time at the Immanuel Chapel of the Virginia Theological Seminary. The health department said it is contacting people who had close contacts with the person at the seminary.

The Alexandria patient is “doing well and is isolated at home,” the health department said.

If you visited Immanuel Chapel between Feb. 26 and March 4, and have not already been contacted directly by the health department, you may have been exposed to the virus but are considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be at low risk. Anyone who visited the chapel on those dates should self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days from their last visit, the department said.

Earlier this week, health officials in Loudoun County said a man in his 40s also tested positive for the virus after contracting the virus from someone at Christ Church. And a second Loudoun County case is known as a “close contact” to the first case officials announced.

Other developments

  • Congress is shutting the Capitol and all House and Senate office buildings to the public, including tours, until April. Lawmakers, aides and journalists will still be allowed in the buildings.
  • Metro said it is cleaning trains and buses daily, but there are no service changes for now.
  • The Washington Wizards said players, coaches and other personnel will self-quarantine “for the next three to four days” after the team played the Utah Jazz late last month and a Jazz player later tested positive. The NBA season has been suspended indefinitely.
  • Major League Soccer will be temporarily suspended.
  • The NHL announced Thursday afternoon that all games are suspended until further notice. The Washington Capitals game scheduled for Thursday evening has been suspended.
  • The Smithsonian said all public events through May 3 are canceled. See a list of events here. The museums and the National Zoo remain open.

Loudoun County schools closed for more than a week

Citing the “rapidly evolving situation,” Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams announced all schools would close Thursday and Friday, and all of next week. All activities are also canceled.

Williams said the closure will allow school officials to consult with the Loudoun County Health Department, review recommendations from state health officials and the CDC, and develop mitigation strategies for when schools reopen. For now, students are set to return March 23.

“Schools will be thoroughly cleaned before they reopen,” Williams said during a news conference Thursday.

Although schools are closed, buildings will be open for short visits Thursday and Friday for students to retrieve important items, such as medicine or laptops.

Similarly, Fredericksburg City Public Schools in Virginia said it will also close between Friday and March 22.

Loudoun County’s is the most extended school closure in the D.C. area.

Fairfax County announced earlier this week that classes will be canceled this coming Monday, and the day would be a staff development day to give teachers time to prepare for the possibility of distance learning if schools have to close long-term.

Several other school systems throughout the area have made schedule changes amid coronavirus fears.

$5M more for coronavirus response in DC

In D.C., where a total of 10 cases have been reported, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Thursday that an additional $5 million from emergency cash reserves would be used to buy supplies and protective equipment.

On Wednesday, Bowser declared a state of emergency, and health officials recommended canceling large gatherings of 1,000 or more people.

Bowser said that most organizers are complying with the health department’s recommendation, but she could order a closure if necessary.

Of the cases in D.C., two of are unknown origin, and officials aren’t sure how the people contracted the virus.

The new cases indicate that person-to-person transmission of coronavirus is occurring, said Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of D.C.’s health department.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein, Abigail Constantino, Max Smith, Will Vitka and The Associated Press contributed to this report. WTOP’s Mitchell Miller contributed to this report from Capitol Hill. 

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Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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