Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Coronavirus cases are rising again nationwide. The fourth wave, however, is expected to be less deadly than the previous waves because some of the country’s most vulnerable are now vaccinated.     

The D.C. region is relatively flat compared to the rest of the country. In February, DC Health started to report cases coming down from the holiday surge. DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said recently that not as many people are getting tested. Still, cases started to tick back up again. D.C. was never able to sustain moderate community spread, or 15 cases or below per 100,000 people. Cases are now being driven by residents younger than 40, according to Ryan Stahlin, the data scientist responsible for DCcovid.com, which pulls data directly from DC Health.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration eased some coronavirus restrictions, albeit not to the degree that governors elsewhere have. She kept the mask mandate, for example, but allowed gyms to have indoor classes with up to 10 people and permitted select live entertainment to resume. Unlike neighboring states, Bowser kept indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. The mayor said she’ll revisit reopening April 5. 

In a call with the Council on Wednesday, a DC Health official said cases are plateauing, but it’s too soon to say whether the city is experiencing another wave. “We have to keep an eye on it over a longer period,” she said. The official added that they expect to see a bump given that the mayor eased some restrictions.  

Dozens of variant cases have been detected in the region. In D.C., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 40 cases of the variant first detected in the U.K., and two cases of the South African strain. Officials have not reported any cases of the variant first confirmed in Brazil. In February, Nesbitt said the health department had limited ability to sequence mutations in every positive sample, so there are likely more variant cases going undetected. Public health experts suspect that the variants are more contagious.   

Anne Monroe, a professor of epidemiology at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, couldn’t say with certainty whether variants are driving infections among younger people.  

“It could be that people are just letting down their guard and not following precautions because they’re so desperate to see the light at the end of the tunnel and so social distancing and masking have sort of maybe gone by the wayside a little bit,” says Monroe. “Or perhaps the older adult family members in their households are vaccinated. Maybe that’s driving some of the changes in behavior among the younger people because they’re not as concerned about infecting their older relatives who are now vaccinated.”

“I think there are definitely a couple of possible explanations,” she adds. 

Have vaccinations impacted cases yet? A graphic courtesy of Stahlin shows cases among residents 65 and older flattening as they started to get vaccinated beginning in mid-January: 

“I think the vaccine potentially is helping keep numbers in elderly people flat, which is helping keep the number of hospitalizations and deaths relatively flat. Now, we know those are lagging indicators, so we won’t really know if they stay flat for another couple of weeks,” says Monroe. “I can’t say for sure the cause and effect.” 

On Friday, DC Health reported that two seniors, ages 67 and 78, had died of COVID-19 complications on April 1. Not everyone who can get really sick from COVID-19 is fully vaccinated yet. As of March 26, 64 percent of seniors in D.C. have been at least partially vaccinated. This is lower than the national average of 73 percent. (DC Health’s goal was for 70 percent of seniors to be vaccinated by the first week of March.) And those under 65 with medical conditions that exacerbate COVID-19 have not all been vaccinated. This cohort accounts for thousands of people. Demand still exceeds supply.  

Public health experts are encouraging the public to continue behaviors that studies prove work. Continue to mask. Socialize outside. It’s spring. 

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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