Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser's decision to reverse mask and vaccine mandates has attracted fast pushback. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mayor Muriel Bowser instituted a mask “advisory” yesterday, about two weeks after she lifted a mandate that required people to wear masks inside most public places. Masks are still required on public transportation and in schools, libraries, child care and health care facilities, prisons and jails, and public-facing D.C. government sites.

D.C. Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt explained some steps the city is taking to make it easier to get vaccinated. Starting Monday, Dec. 6, families can get vaccinated and boosted at D.C.-sponsored sites, including walk-ups at public libraries that have until now served only residents over 12 years old, she said. The city is also adding three new vaccination sites to serve people 5 years and older. Also starting Monday, D.C.’s at-home vaccination program will expand to serve children ages 5 to 11. 

The changes come amid increased vigilance over Omicron, the newest COVID-19 variant. The U.S. government and the World Health Organization have classified it as “a variant of concern.”

Health officials reported the first Omicron case identified in the U.S. in California from a traveler who had returned from South Africa, where the variant has become the dominant strain less than two weeks after it was discovered there. Yesterday, the number of identified Omicron cases multiplied across five states. One case was confirmed in Minnesota from a man who had just returned from New York. There are multiple confirmed in New York state, as well as others in Colorado and Hawaii. 

The “concern” is largely based on Omicron’s potentially higher level of transmissibility, though epidemiology studies are underway to see whether other factors are at play. The recent rise in hospitalizations in South Africa may be due to a rise in the overall number of people getting infected, for example, versus those infected with Omicron, according to WHO. It’s also unclear whether Omicron leads to more severe symptoms and how effective vaccines are against this variant. 

Scientists in South Africa say previous COVID infection provides little immunity to Omicron, and by Thursday the variant had spread to 25 countries on six continents, the New York Times reported.

“Previous infection used to protect against Delta but now with Omicron that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Anne von Gottberg, microbiologist at the National Institute For Communicable Diseases Of South Africa, told BBC

When asked about concerns of a potentially worsening situation in the District, Bowser said she’s not worried right now. She said she was instituting a mask advisory instead of a mandate because “the city’s case rate was about the same when you got rid of the indoor mask mandate as it is right now.” While that’s the case with daily and weekly case rates reported by DC Health as of Dec. 2, the rate of hospitalizations has worsened since last month, increasing from 5.8 percent to 7.1 percent despite a 2.7 percent increase in D.C. residents fully vaccinated. Bowser also noted that the mask advisory is consistent with federal guidelines and those of other major cities

But Bowser encouraged D.C. residents to take other precautions, including continuing to get vaccinated against COVID and the flu. Federal guidance says everyone over the age of 18 who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine before Oct. 1 or got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine before June 1 should get a booster.

“Boosters are a clear and effective strategy,” Bowser said. “We continue to get more and more information every day about the added benefit that boosters provide for protecting us from COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and hospitalization.”

The three new vaccination sites operating starting next week will be Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Petworth Library, and Woodridge Library.

Bowser said folks should also continue to be vigilant about handwashing and be judicious about large group gatherings as part of the city’s longtime strategy against community transmission. They should stay home and get a COVID test if they experience any symptoms, she said: “Don’t leave it to yourself to decide that you’re having a cold versus COVID-19 or ‘these are just allergies.’”

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