DC Mayor Bowser reflects on year of COVID-19 — and looks to the future

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she “couldn’t be prouder” of the District health department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic over the last year and said the nation’s capital is poised for a comeback.

But, in a wide-ranging interview with WTOP, she noted difficulties in getting kids back to the classroom and lamented that neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland hadn’t been “in more lockstep” with efforts to curtail the virus.

“We certainly want to get to a place where we can welcome all kids back to school, and we can we can have them all in the building at the same time,” Bowser said, adding that there is an agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union.

“And I think that many people will disagree about when or how to reopen. But I’m responsible for making sure that there’s a plan to do so. And also responsible for making sure that the buildings and the testing capacity and the health staffing are available. And I don’t know of a jurisdiction that put together a more robust safety plan for students and teachers and family than we did.”

Bowser said teachers have been prioritized for vaccine appointments, and she believes D.C. was the first jurisdiction to do that.

“I think our teachers, all of our in-person teachers were offered the vaccine before we reopened for the second term. So we’re pretty proud of that. Many of them, in fact, took advantage of it. We still have another tranche of teachers who were registering now who aren’t teaching in person,” Bowser said.

The pandemic’s impact on academic performance for D.C. students remains a concern.

“I don’t even know that we appreciate the full extent of what kids will have to do to catch up academically and socially,” she added.

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The mayor said she didn’t want to stop any high school sports but “we had to.”

“Because what we saw in the high school sports and the behavior in and around high school sports were dangerous for kids and families,” she said. “And so as we come into the spring, and we can focus on outdoor activities, and we can limit the other social activities around high school sports, I think that we will have the opportunity for a better experience with high school sports.”

She said officials expect to see an increase in coronavirus cases in high schools, regardless.

“There’s no way you’re going to turn on an activity and think, ‘Oh, COVID is gone,'” Bowser said. “COVID’s not gone, all right? And so we know, and so we want parents and kids to be extremely vigilant. And for the vulnerable kids that may have a preexisting condition, we want them to be getting vaccinated, too, if they’re over the age of 16.”

At a Monday news conference, Bowser said some high school and middle school sports would be allowed to resume among other loosening of restrictions. And D.C. will consider waivers from professional sports teams to play in front of fans.

Additionally, more people in D.C. are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

One point of contention for Bowser is the efforts to contain the virus throughout the D.C. region sometimes not being unified.

“I think the governors in Maryland, Virginia have other regions as well to think about other than the D.C. metropolitan region,” Bowser said. “And it would have been my great hope that the counties that surround us would have been in more lockstep, to be perfectly honest, because this virus doesn’t know borders. It just doesn’t.”

She noted that D.C. has an “oversized” worker population from neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia.

“And so what happens in those counties with regard to testing and vaccination and activity impacts D.C. residents, but I think that we have enjoyed a great relationship with the governors; everybody’s doing the best they can to address all of the varied interests in our own jurisdictions. So there will continue to be opportunities for us to work together.”

There’s also the issue of getting the vaccine to D.C. residents who need it the most.

Regarding access to coronavirus vaccines, Bowser pointed to the “uneven impact” of the virus both in D.C. and around the country.

“So how we respond, necessarily, has to focus on people who have been hit most dramatically and hit the hardest, in every aspect of our response to COVID,” she said. “Including testing, including services, including relief grants, and now the vaccine, is focused on how we can get the hardest-hit communities.”

Bowser said the rollout of the vaccine is “probably one of the most equity-directed policies that I’ve been a part of in government, where we looked at the data, we were able to direct vaccines to the hardest-hit areas of our city.”

D.C. recently launched a vaccine preregistration site for residents that has seen more than 100,000 people sign up. While anyone in D.C. can preregister, distribution of the vaccines is targeting priority ZIP codes.

There are other initiatives as well, such as “Faith in the Vaccine,” which couples D.C. churches with clinics to get shots in the arms of congregants, and a program through D.C. Housing and Sibley Memorial Hospital that helps people in public housing get vaccinated.

“We have a similar effort with our residents who are homeless and, working with Unity Health Care, a provider that they’re familiar with, to go out to their homes,” Bowser said. “And similarly, we have health care providers like Mary’s Center, who are out in the community each and every day. And people trust them; they go to them for their regular care, and they’re also a vaccinator in our program.”

Bowser added, “So we’re very proud of that.”

When it comes to hesitancy about getting a vaccine dose, the mayor said it wasn’t just older residents who are wary.

“We see that in our health care population. We see it among government employees. We see it among teachers, among every subpopulation, that there are people who are early adopters, and there are people who will wait and see,” Bowser said.

And as the District’s response to the pandemic has evolved over the last year, Bowser said she “couldn’t be prouder of D.C. Health and all of our emergency response agencies that have been a part of keeping D.C. residents safe and allowing our health care workers to do their job.”

Bowser closed out on an optimistic note.

While COVID-19 has forced D.C. residents and businesses to adapt, it now provides opportunities for “how we use our streets, how we can support and repurpose vacant businesses, how we can attract new industry and business,” Bowser said.

“I’m actually excited because this is a comeback. And you know, a year ago, I would have never thought to be rethinking all of these things that we’ve been doing the same way for a long time. But now that’s what we’re doing, and it’s exciting,” Bowser said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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