Jan 11, 2022 - News

COVID surge's staffing crunch upends life in D.C. area

A coronavirus testing clinic is set up under a tent at a public park in Washington, D.C.
A coronavirus testing clinic in Farragut Square. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Across the DMV, the pandemic's sickening of workers is leading to scaled-back bus service, reduced hours for government offices, and trouble keeping schools open with dwindling staff. 

Why it matters: Unlike early in the pandemic when government restrictions shuttered much of public life, the sheer number of employees sidelined this time by the coronavirus is upending industries and governments.

  • Skyrocketing case rates are triggering disruptions that range from schools going virtual-only to less obvious inconveniences.
  • For instance, Virginians may see delays in receiving certificates for a birth, death, marriage, or divorce because the state Office of Vital Records is scaling back call center operations over COVID-related staffing shortages.
  • Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency yesterday, a week after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did the same amid fears of hospitals being overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

What they’re saying: “I guess we’re a microcosm of everybody else. People are getting sick and they’re not going to work,” Montgomery County executive Marc Elrich told Axios in a Zoom call, on Day 10 of recovering from a coronavirus infection. He said his fever and severe fatigue have subsided.

  • “Unlike the school system with substitutes … government doesn’t run with substitutes,” Elrich added. “As soon as people start not being able to work, it has repercussions for how services are going to be operated.”
  • The county's fire department is among agencies feeling the staffing crunch, and schools have a bus driver shortage, leading to reduced routes. Even a county-run liquor and wine store had to close yesterday due to sick employees, said Rich Madaleno, a top county official.
  • On the first day of rapid test kit distribution in the county, Madaleno said that libraries passed out 43,000 kits within the first three hours.

Staffing troubles at Metro led to a drastic reduction in bus service that started yesterday.

  • Metrobus is running on a Saturday schedule on weekdays. Some routes will have additional trips.
  • Rail service is unchanged but continues to be without 60% of its train fleet due to 7000-series cars still undergoing a safety probe.

Zoom in: In the District, cases among government employees remain high but in recent days have dipped slightly, a source of optimism for city leaders.

  • “We don’t see the exponential growth that we had seen for about two or three weeks,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said. “Those numbers are coming down among our employees.”
  • In the District government, 1,485 employees were away from work as of Jan. 3 due to being COVID positive, according to data provided to Axios. An additional 416 employees were quarantining due to exposure.
  • The Metropolitan Police Department, which has had the most cases among D.C. public safety agencies during the pandemic, currently has 239 staff members with positive cases, according to D.C. data. That’s down from 358 positive cases at the start of the new year.

By the numbers: DC Health data from this past weekend showed just over 2,000 daily new coronavirus cases confirmed by a lab and nearly 700 new self-reported cases over three days. Also, six residents died.

Axios reporters Paige Hopkins and Chelsea Cirruzzo contributed to this report.

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