WASHINGTON — While Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington, D.C., was grappling with the riot that tore through the Capitol last week, another crisis was slowly unfolding: a surge of coronavirus in the district.
Washington averaged 290 new coronavirus cases a day in the seven-day period that ended Sunday, the most the city has seen during any week of the pandemic. The surge is part of a broader upward tide throughout the nation’s Mid-Atlantic region: Virginia, Maryland and Delaware also set weekly case records on Sunday.
On Monday, Ms. Bowser urged vigilance against the virus, noting that the district’s hospitals were strained by coronavirus patients and the rate of positive test results was high.
“We remain concerned — as the rest of the country remains concerned — about the increase in cases,” she said.
Public health experts warned that the district could be headed for an alarming wave of coronavirus infections in the next few weeks, following the riot in the Capitol, when lawmakers and staff members huddled in small rooms to hide from attackers.
“The district is operating under a double whammy,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
The district has the challenges of any large urban center, she noted, including concentrated poverty and large numbers of vulnerable residents, making fighting the virus very difficult.
“On top of that, the district has this unique risk factor, which is exposure to thousands of people who poured into town, maskless, packed into very concentrated areas, and simply ignoring every public health safety precaution,” Ms. Rosenbaum said. “We won’t know for the next couple of days whether we have a further skyrocketing of cases, but it had all the attributes of what we have all come to understand is a superspreader event — which is huge numbers of people packed together indoors, screaming.”
Washington’s latest surge predates last week’s riot, and not enough time has elapsed for the scale of infections that occurred that day to show up in the district’s data. The full impact may never be known: Infections are generally counted where a person lives, so out-of-town residents who caught the virus during the unrest would not be included in Washington’s case count.
Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, Democrat of New Jersey, suggested on Monday that she was one of them.
“Following the events of Wednesday, including sheltering with several colleagues who refused to wear masks, I decided to take a Covid test,” she wrote on Twitter. “I have tested positive.”
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Representative Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee also has announced that he has tested positive after being exposed to his roommate, Representative Gus Bilirakis of Florida. Both lawmakers are Republicans.
Mr. Fleischmann told a Chattanooga TV station, WRCB, that he was sent a notification on Wednesday that his roommate had tested positive, but did not receive it right away because he was locked down in a secure location during the riot. He said he did not know how many other lawmakers he had come in contact with that day.
After enduring a spring surge of the coronavirus, Washington kept its case numbers relatively low through the summer and into the fall. On Oct. 1, the district, with about 700,000 residents, was averaging fewer than 40 new cases a day.
The outlook has worsened since then. Case numbers rose steeply for two months and peaked in early December. They ebbed a bit in the days before Christmas, but that progress was undone in the first days of 2021.
Around the city, the streets continue to bustle with traffic, but everything else is eerily quiet. Museums and theaters are shuttered, restaurants closed except to outdoor diners or for takeout, downtown sidewalks all but empty. More than half the city’s residents have taken a Covid-19 test. Depending on the time of day, the lines of people waiting for free tests at firehouses and community centers can stretch for blocks, and hours.
Ms. Bowser asked the federal government on Saturday to declare a “pre-emergency” situation for the District of Columbia, citing not only last week’s riot at the Capitol but the increasingly rapid spread of the coronavirus.
Early in the pandemic, bars in the city were jammed with patrons flouting mask requirements, but now, caution is the rule. A check by health officials last month found that 72 percent of people were wearing masks correctly. Hospitals are not yet full; about six out of seven beds are filled.
One bright spot: The city’s vaccination program is gaining steam. On Monday, it began scheduling shots for anyone 65 or older.
Many residents remain wary of the rising threat from the virus. Even after so many months of the pandemic, much feels uncertain. Drew Schneider, a community blogger in Petworth, a mixed-income neighborhood in northwest Washington, said the virus had rampaged through his sister’s family, sickening her, her husband and their two children. Their symptoms varied wildly: One felt fine. Another was ill for weeks. A third recovered after a couple of days but is plagued with headaches. The fourth had gastrointestinal problems.
Their experience was scary, Mr. Schneider said, and the accelerating spread of the virus had him increasingly concerned.
“You just never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “You have to keep your guard up, keep your mask on and wait for the vaccine.”
Julie Wineinger runs Lulabelle’s, an ice cream and coffee shop, and Willow, a women’s fashion store, in a commercial block dotted with vacant storefronts. When the pandemic hit in March, Ms. Wineinger added grocery staples like bread to her stock, and allowed customers to order online. Her clothing shop has closed, except for online orders.
“I don’t necessarily say we’re going gangbusters, but it’s enabling us to stay open and pay employees,” she said.
Even so, the last few months have been getting harder. Business has “definitely gone down,” she said.
The pandemic has hit her family, too. Recently, Ms. Wineinger’s sister caught the virus and recovered. But her grandmother, who got sick last year, died of Covid-19 in November.
Michael Wines reported from Washington, and Julie Bosman from Chicago. Mitch Smith and Dave Philipps contributed reporting.