As we work to contain, mitigate, and manage the spread of the novel coronavirus, I'm reaching back out with updates.
Information is changing daily, so this likely won't be the only update I send on this topic. This will be a situation that evolves and changes regularly and I want to do my best to help keep you properly informed.
New as of 4 pm, Wednesday March 11: Mayor Bowser, with the full support of the Council, has declared a public health emergency, which opens up more funding options and authority to respond to the spreading coronavirus.
First off, the District government has set up a central website and clearinghouse for information, data, and updates on coronavirus and steps being taken by your local officials. That website is https://www.coronavirus.dc.gov. I recommend you check this regularly.
Second, DC Public Schools has just announced that they will be closing on Monday, March 16th for a professional development day to help work with educators to talk about coronavirus impacts, as well as focus on academic contingency planning should distance learning (i.e., online classes) become required. A decision for a larger closure has not been made yet, but this step is being taken to have the system better prepared to respond to our students' needs should that decision be made. This is a shift in the previously planned professional development day from Friday, March 20, which will now be converted to a regular school day for DCPS teachers and students. At this time, I do not have similar information for charter or private schools, who each make their own independent decisions. If you're a parent or student with questions about your school, I recommend you contact your school directly.
I know with any possible school closures, there are serious concerns about how to ensure kids who depend on those meals can still get the nutrition they need that might not be able to be provided at home. There are active conversations and planning on how to tackle this challenge is happening right now.
Third, the DC Health Department has issued guidance that all events with 1000+ people should be cancelled or postponed. I'll talk more about why that's an important step below.
I have met with the Mayor and been in near constant contact with senior officials and agency directors over the last week. As chair of public safety for the Council, I've spoken with both the police and fire chiefs about ensuring protections are in place for our first responders, I've talked with the head of our forensic testing lab about their increased capacity for coronavirus testing, I've talked with the head of our emergency response agency about their overall coordination, and much more. Across the board, government officials are coordinating and working together to have a cohesive and unified response. Communication about these efforts and recommendations will be crucial.
One question I've been asked a bit is why are we seeing closures, or considering closures, when we don't have a high number of people testing positive for COVID-19 yet? From a public health perspective, a positive test is a lagging indicator. The average incubation period for coronavirus is about 5 days, so it can take a week or so after exposure until someone would experience symptoms. And while it has been argued that the virulence of COVID-19 appears to be roughly equivalent to the annual influenza, we're quickly seeing it is more dangerous. It's important to remember that no one has a vaccine or community immunity to the spread of this virus, compared to the flu.
That means it will likely spread very quickly (as we've seen in so many other countries), but put an even greater stress on our healthcare system that needs to provide higher intensity care for those that are most vulnerable - especially our older residents - in addition to all of the other healthcare needs they are already meeting. Any decision to cancel an event is a serious one and not taken lightly, but from a community perspective, slowing the spread of the virus helps flatten the curve of impact so that our needed healthcare systems aren't as overwhelmed as they otherwise be (see chart to the right). I recommend reading this great article that helps explain this important idea to help us all.
All of this is related to why taking more precaution than you would during a normal flu season is critically important right now. That's where the dedication to good hand washing, being intentional about sneezing and coughing into your elbow (not your hand), and exercising good judgment about when to stay home can really make a difference. If not for you, than for someone with a compromised immune system who will be more susceptible to the harshest effects.
As of last night, the District has four cases that have tested positive, with several more tests pending results by our state lab. Private testing is counted separately, but any positive reports will be shared immediately with DC Department of Health. Based on the experience we've seen elsewhere, we should expect more positive test results. The District is quickly ramping up it's total capacity to test for the virus and private companies are also able to begin testing this week. I am in daily contact with the Mayor and her team to discuss and coordinate their next steps.
As mentioned earlier, https://coronavirus.dc.gov/ should be a good, ongoing resource for the latest updates and advice. You can find toolkits, data, and latest news on this site. Keep an eye out for specific statements like this one, which can alert unsuspecting residents to potential exposure and should be extra mindful to watch for symptoms.
If you believe you are experiencing symptoms, call your primary care or health care provider. Your primary care provider will connect with the Department of Health about next steps as well and they are by far the best place to assess your health. Please call your primary care provider prior to going to the doctor's office to make them aware of the symptoms you are experiencing.
What are the laws in DC around paid sick leave? Yes, all employers are required to grant their employees some amount of paid leave for illness. That total varies depending on the size of your employer - know your rights as an employee.
What about the economic hit for small businesses or hourly employees who don't get paid if they can't work? While much of the focus this past week has been on containment, we are having conversations and planning about the best way to help out our small businesses and employees who don't have the flexibility to work from home. If that means legislation, I know that's a conversation we'll be ready to have on the Council.
Updates on Operations of My Office Moving Forward: For now, my office is continuing on with our operations, however we are planning for contingencies if larger events or public hearings cannot happen. So far internationally, social distancing has proven the most-effective at slowing the spread and pace of new infections.
Budget Town Hall - I hope you all have already saved the date for my March 25 Budget Town Hall. In the past, we have streamed this event on Facebook in addition to meeting in person. This year, we are already looking into a more substantial webcast - and possibly holding this meeting exclusively online or by phone - in the event that's the best course of action at that time. However, please RSVP to be sure you receive any updates on changes or how to follow along online.
Friday Morning Office Hours - To follow some of the best recommendations, I am going to postpone this Friday morning's office hours. Of course, I and my staff are always available by phone and email. If you were planning on coming to office hours this Friday and had an issue you wanted to discuss, please let me know or feel reach out to my staff via email (relevant staff members) and am happy to get working on your problem based on an email or phone call (724-8072) rather than chatting in-person.
Alright, that's a long enough update for now. Remember, if you are concerned about symptoms, please contact your primary care or health care provider first. And once more, this is a great space for updates.
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