Loudoun County supervisors are looking toward an end to required masking in county facilities and the two-year-long state of local emergency as the latest surge of COVID-19 infections shows signs of subsiding.
Loudoun is ahead of the curve compared to the commonwealth at-large in more than one way—the county has one of the state’s highest vaccination rates, with nearly 83% of the adult population vaccinated and 46.5% of the adult population having received a booster shot, and the county also is further past the winter peak in infections. Statewide, as of Tuesday, while infections are declining rapidly, they remain higher than at any other point in the pandemic. Loudoun’s levels have continued their precipitous drop from an early January high and on Tuesday dropped below last winter’s peak.
That has supervisors, like everyone else, anxious to get back to normal.
During their meeting Tuesday, some supervisors pushed to find a date to take masks off regardless of infection rates. Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) asked the board to direct the board’s Finance, Government Operations and Economic Development Committee, which she now chairs, to establish a date certain to end the county’s mask requirement for visitors to county buildings. Supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) expressed support.
But during the debate, that initiative was changed to direct that visitors to county buildings will no longer be required to wear masks once the county drops below CDC metrics for the highest levels of transmission—a policy County Administrator Tim Hemstreet told supervisors he had in mind anyway. That motion passed 5-4, with Supervisors Sylvia R. Glass (D-Ashburn), Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian), Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) and Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) opposed.
The CDC’s guidance recommends taking every mitigation measure such as masking and social distancing when the rolling 7-day average of new cases is at or above 50 per 100,000 people, and the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is at or above 8%. As of Tuesday, Loudoun is averaging 55.4 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, and 16.8% of tests coming back positive for COVID-19.
And the state of local emergency, which was declared on March 16, 2020, could end almost two years to the day after it began. Hemstreet told supervisors that the county is looking at winding down operations at the Dulles Town Center vaccination clinic at the end of February, and bringing a recommendation to end the state of emergency to the board at a meeting in early March.
“At this point in time, the only thing that we’re using in terms of emergency powers is some authority around keeping the POD [Point of Distribution] open as a point of dispensing vaccinations. We are planning to close the POD at the end of February, so that would go away.” Hemstreet said. “… The only other thing that we’re using the state of emergency to do is, under the Code of Virginia, if you have a declared local emergency, it allows your advisory bodies to meet electronically.”
Gathering accurate information about COVID-19 cases in the community has become more difficult, said Loudoun Department of Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend. That is not only because more people are using home tests rather than getting tested at doctors’ offices or other facilities—in other words, using tests that aren’t reported to the Health Department—but also because new guidance from the Youngkin administration no longer requires schools to report COVID-19 cases to the Health Department.
That also comes as vaccination rates among young people lag behind the rest of the population. In Loudoun, only 47.3% of people age 5-11 years are fully vaccinated.
“The 5-11’s are lagging, and that’s been a challenge, and it’s been a challenge particularly as we’re looking at how we keep our kids in school,” Goodfriend said.
But, he said, the trend downward is still evident.
“My optimistic hope is that with Omicron, since so many people in our community got infected—and thank God, not seriously infected if they were fully vaccinated— then that may decrease the risk of the next surge coming,” Goodfriend said. “And maybe we get to it being a seasonal infection, where we take a booster shot each fall, like we do with the flu shot.”
The Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has shown itself to be extremely contagious, but generally less servere, especially with vaccines now widely available.
As some supervisors push to do away with masking, County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) shared a personal reason why she will keep wearing one: she was born with only one kidney, and that kidney is not fully healthy. People with kidney disease have been shown to be more at risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
“You never know who you’re sitting by, or who you’re sitting with who has a serious medical issue. So, although the mask is a pain, sometimes you wear the mask for the person sitting next to you,” Randall said.
She said she was thankful for her colleagues wearing masks around her.
“I am wearing this for everyone around me, and I think that’s what a society does,” she said.