Coronavirus updates: Several Va. measures extended; free meals to be distributed in Md.

Medical personnel from Montgomery County, Md., check patients arriving for a COVID-19 drive-in testing in Silver Spring, Md., Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Maryland has dramatically boosted its testing capacity for the new coronavirus with a shipment of 500,000 tests from a South Korean company. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The latest

  • House sent the White House a nearly $500 billion package for small business, hospitals in latest bid to counter the coronavirus pandemic’s impact.
  • Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which has been delivering food to people hit by disasters worldwide, will be distributing free food in Baltimore on Saturday to people dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday extended the ban on elective surgeries in the commonwealth another week, until May 1, and the closure of public-facing DMV locations until May 11.
  • The start of the next D.C. school year, which could come early to make up for class time lost this year, could be decided next month.
  • D.C. is widening some sidewalks to help with social distancing.
  • The total number of COVID-19 cases in D.C., Maryland and Virginia has passed 30,000.

The symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Health officials say that if you have these symptoms, you should call your doctor. Do not just show up. Medical facilities need to get ready for you. If you don’t have a doctor and you live in D.C. or the nearby Maryland suburbs, D.C.’s mayor recommends calling the Testing Triage Center at 855-363-0333 or Mary’s Center at 844-796-2797. If you live in Virginia, call 211.

Gov. Northam signs executive order eliminating copays for some patients

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order eliminating copays for patients covered through the Family Access to Medical Insurance Security program.

The order also enables Medicaid members to receive prosthetics, orthotics and other lost or damaged medical supplies without in-person verification, Northam’s office said in a news release.

Northam said the order will help medical services become more accessible to those who need them in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our north star has been protecting the health and safety of all Virginians,” Northam said in a statement. “These actions will give DMAS more flexibility to assist the hundreds of thousands of people in this Commonwealth who get their health coverage through Medicaid. We will remain focused on increasing access to medical care for vulnerable populations, especially during this critical time.”

Congress delivers nearly $500B more in virus aid

Congress delivered a nearly $500 billion infusion of coronavirus spending Thursday, rushing new relief to employers and hospitals buckling under the strain of a pandemic that has claimed almost 50,000 American lives and one in six U.S. jobs, The Associated Press reported.

The measure passed almost unanimously, but the lopsided tally belies a potentially bumpier path ahead as battle lines are being formed for much more ambitious future legislation that may prove far more difficult to maneuver through Congress.

Read the full story from The Associated Press.

Montgomery County limits rent increases

The Montgomery County, Maryland, council enacted a law that would cap how much landlords can increase rent on residential properties.

The COVID-19 Renter Relief Act, unanimously passed Thursday, prohibits landlords from increasing rent behind the County Department of Housing and Community Affairs’ (DHCA) rent guidelines of 2.6 percent for residential tenants during and for a period of 180 days after public health emergency.

“One in 10 Americans is out of work right now. We need federal action to help many people to be able to pay their current rents, let alone an increased rent,” Council member Will Jawando, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement last week when he presented the bill during a meeting.

Read the full story.

Andres’ WCK to distribute meals at Camden Yards

Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which has been delivering food to people hit by disasters worldwide, will be distributing free food in Baltimore on Saturday to people dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 individually packaged meals will be available for residents to pick up and take home on Saturday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Lot H of the Camden Yards Sports Complex, next to M&T Bank Stadium. The meal site will continue to operate each Saturday “as community needs remain,” Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said in a statement.

“This certainly isn’t how we planned to be using Camden Yards right now, but at the very least, we can use the space to help families in need during this crisis,” Hogan said in the statement.

“WCK has been working with Baltimore City Public Schools to set up family pickup sites at schools throughout the city, but we know that some families need access to meals on the weekend – so we are teaming up with the Orioles, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and the City of Baltimore to help those families,” said Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen, in the statement.

Several Va. measures extended

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday extended the ban on elective surgeries in the commonwealth another week, until May 1, and the closure of public-facing DMV locations until May 11.

He also announced that the suspension of Virginia State Police enforcement of motor vehicle inspections would continue through the end of July. Local law enforcement can still issue citations, but the governor is asking them not to do so.

Driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations are also good through July 31.

“The public health emergency order does not apply to any procedure if the delay would cause harm to a patient,” Northam’s office said in a statement. “The order also does not apply to outpatient visits in hospital-based clinics, family planning services or emergency needs.” You can read the full amended order on Northam’s website.

DC schools decision could come next month

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she could make a decision as early as next month about when schools in the District will open in the fall.

Last week, Bowser announced D.C. schools would end the current school year three weeks early, and that students would not return to classrooms this year but would continue virtual classes until then.

Bowser has indicated the next school year could start early to make up for the lost time, but no decisions have been made about that. Also still up in the air is whether summer school could be carried out in-person or whether that, too, will be online-only.

“By mid May, we’re going to let all of our parents know what’s possible for summer learning and what’s possible for (the) early start next year,” Bowser said Tuesday afternoon on a Washington Post webcast.

So far, D.C. residents have been complying with her stay-at-home order and other social distancing measures, Bowser said, adding that the city has used the police department and the National Guard to give people reminders and for “nudging ” people along, especially in public places.

The mayor said she’s concerned about “social distancing fatigue,” especially as warmer weather approaches.

One of the committees tasked with coming up with recommendations for eventually easing coronavirus restrictions in D.C. will be taking a look at summer camps, she said, “as well as how can we give people more recreational opportunities as the summer months approach.”

Bowser acknowledged the city’s arts, entertainment and events industries have been been particularly hard hit by social distancing restrictions, pointing to the closing of the D.C. Convention Center, theaters, bars and restaurants,

“All were hit hard and hit first and we think that they will still have some of the strictest social distancing measures for the longest,” she said.

Bowser: DC reopening a ‘once-in-a-generation’ chance 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Thursday that while it’s too soon to set a date on when safety restrictions will be lifted in the District, a committee is being formed to figure out what a post-COVID-19 D.C. will look like — and she added that she’s aiming for everyday life to look different from how it did before the pandemic hit.

At a briefing at the Department of Human Services building, Bowser announced the formation of a Reopen DC Advisory Group comprising government and community leaders, composed of 12 committees, including one focused on equity.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reopen our city in a way that builds a more equitable D.C., and we should not let this opportunity pass us by,” Bowser said.

Calling “racial inequities and how they play out right in front of our eyes” a “distressing” element of the pandemic, Bowser said, “When we get on the other side of this … we have to do better, and we have to tackle the long-standing inequities” that have been around for centuries.

“As we think of reopening,” she said, “we see this as an opportunity (not) just to go back to the way things were before, but to do and be better than before.”

Bowser said that other committees will include co-chairs, as well as:

  • Public health innovation and workforce
  • Transportation and infrastructure
  • Open spaces and recreation
  • Education and child care
  • Government operation, public safety and criminal justice
  • Faith, arts, culture hotels and entertainment
  • Restaurants and food retailers
  • Retail and small business
  • Human services, social services and health
  • Real estate and construction.

Though the committees will start making recommendations as early as May, Bowser said, all decisions on lifting safety restrictions would follow the guidelines set by the White House’s coronavirus task force.

She called the White House’s guidance for cities and states “a good framework,” adding, “Our thinking is in line with the White House, but there are a few things we need to see. … I don’t think we’re going to have a light switch and everything goes back the same as normal.”

To enter the first phase of lifting safety restrictions, Bowser said, the District needs to see a consistent downward trend in new cases for a two-week period (Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. Department of Health, later said that could be defined as a declining positive-test rate, not just to raw numbers).

The health care system must also be able to treat everyone who needs care without using Crisis Standards of Care, Bowser said. Widespread contact-tracing and testing are also required.

More Coronavirus News

Bowser said that the restrictions currently in place are working, but that “we have to keep working together to flatten the curve.”

She added, “It seems like I saw more people moving around, more people driving place to place. I want to remind people we are in a stay-at-home posture until at least May 15.”

DC to widen some sidewalks

Sometimes the sidewalk just isn’t wide enough to keep the recommended six feet of social distance between yourself and others. But the D.C. Department of Transportation is starting to extend some sidewalks to help people with spacing out crowds.

The department said the first rounds are being installed by the end of the week. They’re at:

  • The north side of Irving Street Northwest between Hiatt Place and 15th Street;
  • The west side of Georgia Avenue Northwest between Quincy and Randolph streets;
  • The east side of 25th Street Northwest between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Trader Joe’s driveway;
  • The north side of H Street Northeast between 3rd and 4th streets;
  • And a full closure of the Connecticut Avenue Northwest service lane between Macomb and Ordway streets.

If you know of another sidewalk that should get the same treatment, contact your Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner of Business Improvement District.

Cases in DC, Md., Va. pass 30,000

The total reported number of COVID-19 cases in D.C., Maryland and Virginia passed 30,000 in numbers released Thursday.

In D.C., new cases went up 155 to a total of 3,361; 12 more people died, for a total of 139. Ward 4 is reporting the most cases, with 562; Ward 7 has the most reported deaths, with 30. African Americans comprise half the total cases and 81% of the deaths.

In Maryland, the number of new confirmed cases went up nearly 1,000, to 15,737, while 49 new deaths were reported, for a total of 680.

And Virginia on Thursday reported a total of 10,998 confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, with 370 confirmed deaths and two probable deaths.

Psychologists offer free virtual town hall

Local psychologists want you to feel supported and empowered during these difficult times, and they’re offering a free virtual community town hall on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., offering tips for coping with family, parenting, relationships, stress and anxiety.

“We’re going to have several psychologist experts who will be addressing some of the concerns,” said Samira Paul, co-chair of the District of Columbia Psychological Association’s COVID-19 Task Force.

“Please sign up and join us; we want to be here for you; we want to support you; we want you to process your feelings in a safe space,” Paul said.

Anyone is welcome to attend. The goal, Paul said, is for community members to leave the event with a sense of empowerment and the skills to help handle anxiety and issues in a more effective way.

Hogan: Maryland ‘still on the upswing’

In an interview with Politico on Thursday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he and the state took some of the earliest and most aggressive actions to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, but that the state remained on an upward trajectory.

“We’re still on the upswing” in terms of hospitalizations, intensive-care cases and deaths, in the region, Hogan said.

“We’re hopeful that some of the steps we’re taking are going to mitigate the trajectory,” Hogan said. “But, unfortunately, we’re still kind of gradually climbing and not able to start getting over that hump yet, like some of the states that peaked earlier.”

He added, “The federal plan calls for a smart, slow, gradual opening, and it says states should not consider starting that until you have 14 days of numbers starting to go down, and none of the states in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, and the Virginia-D.C.-Maryland region are at that point yet.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday that states should be able to declare bankruptcy in the wake of the economic crisis that the pandemic has caused. He called the idea of more money for state and local governments “a bailout for blue states.”

Asked about McConnell’s remarks, Hogan didn’t mince words.

“If he doesn’t regret it yet, I think he will regret it,” the governor said. “And I think he’s going to change his mind about that. The last thing we need in the middle of an economic crisis is to have states all filing bankruptcy all across America, not able to provide services to people who desperately need them, and further exacerbating the problems of this economic crisis that we have.”

Asked about policy differences with the White House, Hogan, the chair of the National Governors Association, said that he and the governors had had 16 productive conference calls with President Donald Trump and/or Vice President Mike Pence.

“I don’t go out of my way to poke the bear or to criticize someone, necessarily. … I just tried to be helpful with suggestions about the things that we really need, and I try to push for the things that we need,” Hogan said.

He also said he strongly favors conducting elections by mail, adding that he wasn’t sure large gatherings of people are the polls would be safe.

“We have the ability to do absentee ballots for any reason at any time, and we have early voting, and it’s worked very well,” he said. “The difference here is, everyone will be mailed about it as opposed to requesting one. … If it’s safe, we could do a combination of both (mail-in ballots and in-person voting). We have plenty of time to make those determinations.”

Hogan gave some hope to golf enthusiasts, however: “I think it will be one of the early things that we do in the first part of our reopening. We probably will still have to be … I don’t see you being able to hang at the bar with your buddies in the clubhouse. But I think you’ll be able to get out there and, you know, take a few swings in the grass in a safe way.”

DC plans to hire hundreds of contact tracers

A key part of the plan to begin to relax some coronavirus restrictions involves significantly expanding the number of “contact tracers” who work to investigate new cases before they develop into full-blown outbreaks.

Currently, D.C. Health has a team of about 65 contact tracers. In the near term, the department plans to directly hire scores more to build a team of about 200 tracers, Bowser said Thursday.

Ultimately, a team of about 900 is necessary for the District to move to ease social distancing measures under Phase One of the recovery guidelines released last week by the White House.

“Any effective response and reopening will require widespread contact tracing abilities in order to control and contain the virus … We need to know who has it and who has been exposed to it,” Bowser said.

Tracers act as disease investigators — they contact newly diagnosed patients, conduct in-depth interviews and reach out to other recent contacts to determine who needs to quarantine themselves.

D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said some of the positions the department is looking to fill will be entry-level community health workers. Other positions will require recruits with public health backgrounds.

She said she’s looking at college students at the undergraduate and graduate level with public health expertise, as well as some of the 6,000 people who have signed up for the District’s medical reserve corps to fill the positions.

For now, Nesbitt said contact tracing is focused on “high-priority” populations, such as the elderly and people with chronic health conditions. She said her department is seeing “clusters” of cases around the city’s long-term care facilities and homeless shelters.

DC’s Newsham: Testing of first responders is working

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said specific testing for first responders arranged by the D.C. Department of Health has been “unbelievably helpful” in identifying COVID-19 in members of the police force and getting officers back to work when they’re healthy again.

The number of officers showing symptoms and being sent for testing is on a downward trend, Newsham said during an appearance on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.

Initially, the department was sending about 30 department workers three times a week for testing.

“Now, we’re down to sending about 10 officers who are exhibiting symptoms for testing,” Newsham said. “Unfortunately, we’re still getting positive tests, which is an indication, you know, the virus is still out there.”

As of Thursday, a total of 89 workers at the D.C. police department had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to D.C. data. Of those, 56 remain off the job; the other 33 have recovered and returned to duty.

Newsham said he’s received a lot of questions from people inquiring about the requirements for police officer to wear masks.

“The requirements for the police officers are exactly the same as for anyone else in the public,” Newsham said. If officers are coming into contact with “vulnerable populations,” they’re required to wear a mask. “If we go into a grocery store, same thing. So the mayor’s order applies to our officers just like it would apply to anyone else.”

Responding to a listener question about police officers apparently not wearing masks or practicing social distancing during arrests, Newsham said officers face some situations where they don’t always have time to put on masks.

“If you see a police officer who’s acting inappropriately, not wearing their masks when they should be there … bring it to our attention or you can bring it bring it to the Office of Police Complaints. We’ll look into that; we’ll review the body-worn camera. And if they need to be corrected on that behavior, we’ll do so.”

Leaders of DC, Md. and Va. to Trump administration: Keep federal employees on telework

The leaders of D.C., Maryland and Virginia are calling on the Trump administration to continue maximizing telework opportunities for federal employees, saying directing large numbers of employees back to the office too early would conflict with White House guidelines released last week.

The request for continued federal telework in the broader D.C. region came in a letter to the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, Michael Rigas. The letter was signed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

“While of course any essential employee should continue to report to work, we know that a continued federal telework policy will help save lives by allowing more of our region’s 360,000 federal employees to work from home,” the letter said.

The Trump administration directed federal agencies to start offering “maximum telework flexibilities” for their workers on March 23, and the Office of Personnel Management officially changed the government’s operating status in the D.C. area to “yellow,” which means federal offices are open but with maximized telework.

In the letter, the three leaders pointed out that White House guidelines for “Opening Up America Again,” which were unveiled last week, instructed employers to encourage telework “whenever possible and feasible with business operations,” through at least Phases One and Two of the three-phase guidelines. The leaders said the federal government should follow that same guidance.

D.C., Maryland and Virginia have moved many of their government operations online and put their state and local government employees on telework status.

“This is a hard balancing act between ensuring the continuation of critical government functions and ensuring the safety and well-being of employees,” the letter stated. “But we know that the Trump Administration can similarly make these appropriate judgments, and we hope the federal telework posture is reflective of our own local operating statuses.”

The letter is a preemptive move. The Trump administration hasn’t announced any moves to lift telework opportunities. However, earlier this week, the White House issued internal guidance detailing how agencies should call back federal employees to resume “normal operations.” That guidance didn’t set any timelines and suggested agency telework policies should reflect local conditions.

Text-to-911 pilot starting in Prince George’s Co.

Prince George’s County, Maryland, is soft-launching a pilot program by which people can text 911 if they can’t speak over the phone.

The police department said the launch is targeted at residents suffering from COVID-19 symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing or difficulty in breathing.

The service is only available in English at this time.

Social distancing map in Va.

A new interactive, county-by-county map of Virginia makes it possible to see how well people are following stay-at-home orders and physical distancing guidelines.

Read the full story.

WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.

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