A new COVID-19 testing site is coming to Fairfax County, potentially easing up the current scramble for tests amid a surge in cases locally and statewide.

The Virginia Department of Health will open a community testing center tomorrow (Saturday) at the Fairfax County Government Center. The site will be set up in large tent in parking lot B, which is in the southwest corner of the complex.

With the capacity to administer 500 tests a day, the site will operate Saturdays through Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. by appointment only. Appointments will become available online one day before testing officially begins.

Here’s more from the county on how appointments will be administered:

Anyone who makes an appointment but cannot keep it or finds testing elsewhere is asked to cancel their CTC appointment so that the slot will be free for someone else.

CTC test results will be automatically sent via text or email message to individuals being tested, based on the information provided in the appointment system. PCR test results are usually available within a few days and are very effective in detecting an active COVID-19 infection, even if a person is asymptomatic (not showing signs of illness).

Testing is recommended for individuals who have COVID-19 symptoms or have been instructed to test following a COVID-19 exposure. A PCR test should not be done by those seeking to return to work or school after completing isolation for a COVID-19 infection as PCR tests may remain positive even after an individual is no longer infectious.

While appointments are required, all visitors are asked to be patient as there might be wait times. Please dress warmly as part of the line may extend outside. This is not a drive-in event so attendees will need to park and enter the tent.

The county continues to set daily records for new cases. Residents report that testing remains elusive throughout the county.

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As the winter surge continues following Christmas weekend, COVID-19 tests are becoming increasingly hard to come by in Fairfax County.

Many local testing facilities are booked until at least Thursday (Dec. 30). The shortage comes as COVID-19 cases surpass last winter’s surge.  With another 1,441 cases recorded on Christmas Day, the county is now averaging 1,124 cases a day for the past week.

“We are hearing reports that some people are having difficulty in locating tests in Fairfax County,” a spokesperson for the county’s health department told FFXnow.

Testing demand appears to be unparalleled in the county as the emergence of the omicron variant fuels daily caseload increases.

Most testing sites that are part of national chains are fully booked until next week. CVS Pharmacy — which offers a variety of testing options — is booked at its Herndon, Leesburg, and Ashburn locations until next Thursday (Jan. 6). The Vienna location is booked through Saturday, Jan. 8.

My Dr. Pharmacy in Herndon is offering PCR tests for $150, with results released within one day of testing. But the earliest slot isn’t available until late Thursday afternoon.

High demand prompted Walgreens take down its registration page last night.

“We are currently using a virtual waiting room as a result of exceptional demand and to give you the best possible online experience,” the landing page stated.

The page now appears to be back up, but as of this morning (Tuesday), all stores in Fairfax County have been fully booked, with the nearest availabilities in Arlington and Ashburn.

Inova Health Systems is urging residents to seek out a community testing site or home test kit instead of getting tested for COVID-19 at the emergency room.

“Inova Emergency Departments are prioritizing patients with medical conditions requiring emergency care and those with critical illness. We strongly discourage patients who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms from coming to ER,” INOVA Health tweeted yesterday (Monday) afternoon.

Efforts to set up a community testing site are underway.

County public health officials are encouraging residents to seek out multiple testing options, including clinics, kiosks urgent care facilities, and drive-through sites. The Virginia Department of Health offers an online portal to find testing sites in the state.

The shortage has prompted many residents to purchase tests online.

Strains are being felt nationwide. President Joe Biden lamented the testing shortage yesterday, as omicron and holiday travel resulted in long lines at some testing facilities.

Biden noted that his administration aims to increase testing availability with new federal testing sites and the purchase of 500 million at-home rapid coronavirus tests, which will be delivered to residences beginning in January.

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Closed sign (via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

As the holidays approach, here are a number of closures to keep in mind in the area.

Fairfax County Government offices officially close at noon tomorrow through Friday. Offices will also be closed on Friday, Dec. 31 for the New Year’s holiday. But some facilities are open and schedules may differ.

All library branches will be open from 10 a.m. to noon on Christmas Eve, but will remain closed on Friday, Saturday, Dec. 31, and New Year’s Day.  Fairfax County Public Schools are closed through Jan. 3. The school system is encouraging the school community to reach out to address mental health concerns.

The Fairfax Connector will operate on Saturday service schedules tomorrow and Friday.

The county’s Circuit Court will be closed on Thursday and Friday, along with Dec. 30 and 31.

Residents should contact their trash and recycling collection for service changes due to the holidays.

All recreation centers operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority are open tomorrow from 5 a.m. to noon, but closed on Christmas Day. The George Washington Recreation Center, however, will be closed both days.

All county parks and recreation facilities will be closed on Christmas.

Vaccination clinics at the Fairfax County and South County Government Centers will remain closed from tomorrow through Dec. 26, as will the county’s COVID-19 call center.

The Tysons Community Vaccination Center will be closed from tomorrow through Dec. 27 and from Dec. 31 through Jan 2. Between the 28th and 29th, the center will be open from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Dec. 30.

Public health officials are also encouraging residents to maintain social distancing measures in order to minimize hospitalizations during the winter surge of cases.

Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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Fairfax County Public Library branches that serve low-income neighborhoods, including Reston Regional Library, tend to have more cards blocked due to fines

Fairfax County Public Libraries will no longer charge fines for most overdue materials, joining other jurisdictions in the D.C. area in an effort to maintain equity.

The FCPL Board of Trustees unanimously approved the policy in a meeting on Wednesday (Dec. 8). The new system, which begins on Jan. 1, would also reset fines that have already been incurred.

Board of Trustees Chair Fran Millhouser said the policy change is intended to encourage all individuals to take advantage of the library system.

“The FCPL Board of Trustees has approved eliminating fines on most materials and joins surrounding jurisdictions in removing this significant barrier to equitable access to information and library services,” said Millhouser.

The move comes after the board discussed the issue with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in mid-October. An FCPL analysis showed that overdue fines affect young people and individuals in low-income areas.

Blocked cards — cards that are not allowed to check out materials due to fines exceeding $15 — were more prevalent in the following areas:

  • Reston Regional Library
  • City of Fairfax Regional Library
  • George Mason Regional Library
  • Kingstowne Library
  • Sherwood Regional Library

Before the pandemic, 17% of all cardholders had blocked cards. Blocked youth cards accounted for 23% of the total youth cardholder population. A link was found between low-income communities and blocked cards.

Library systems across the country, including in neighboring Alexandria City, Loudoun County, and Prince William County, have adopted fine-free models — a move that has resulted in a surge of returned materials.

Fines will still apply to materials in special collections like interlibrary loan materials, Chromebooks and mobile hotspots.

At the Thursday meeting, board trustee Liz Walker encouraged the library system to further identify what items were still not fine-free. 

But Millhouser noted that a prescriptive approach was not appropriate because the library offers many resources.

“It’s good to leave it open as the library just becomes so diversified… we’re not just a library anymore.”

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Fairfax County has officially expanded its tax relief program for seniors and people with disabilities for the first time in more than 15 years.

At a Tuesday (Dec. 7) meeting, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved expanding the county’s real estate tax relief program by allowing people with higher incomes and net worth to qualify. A 75% tax relief bracket was also added, and the program gives some residents the option to defer payments.

The changes are expected to serve an additional 2,500 Fairfax County residents, according to Jay Doshi, director of the county’s Department of Tax Administration.

Doshi said the county’s tax relief program is now three times the size of Virginia Beach’s program, which is the next largest jurisdiction in the state.

“These proposals represent the largest change and an increase for our residents,” Doshi said.

The maximum gross income to qualify for tax relief was raised from $72,000 to $90,000, while the limit on net worth increased from up to $340,000 to $400,000.

The program also allows homeowners to exclude up to five acres of land that can’t be subdivided when calculating their net worth.

The 75% relief bracket would be available to households with a combined income of between $60,0001 to $70,000. But the amount of tax relief for all brackets would be capped at 125% of the mean assessed value of county homes.

Residents can also defer payment of real estate taxes if the household has a combined total income not more than $100,000 and a net worth of $500,000. Deferred taxes would be subject to interest.

Changes will go into effect on Jan. 1 and will be phased out over the next two years.

Older adults pushed for the changes at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“Having a tax relief program designed for the economic reality of 2006 does not make sense in the economic reality of 2021,” said Catherine Cole, chairwoman of the Fairfax Area Commission on Aging.

Cole noted that rapid inflation, rising economic insecurity among the county’s older populations, declining assets, and rising housing costs have strained many seniors, pushing some to leave Fairfax County.

“It would make sense to encourage those who are growing older to remain in their homes,” Cole said.

But others said the changes did not go far enough.

Daniel Campbell, a Fairfax County resident with two adult sons who are handicapped, said the county should consider freezing property tax assessments once residents retire and remove net worth as a requirement for seniors to qualify for property tax relief.

He said the net worth requirement penalizes people who have significant savings. Campbell and his wife hope to leave savings for their sons in the form of a special needs trust.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said the changes — though imperfect — were long “overdue.”

“This has become an acute need at this point,” McKay said, calling the changes a significant advancement. He said the changes increased the yearly fiscal impact on the county from $28 million to $48 million.

McKay said he would like to evaluate tweaks to the program in the future.

Others said the county needs to find other ways to diversify its income beyond real estate taxes as the primary revenue source.

“Tax reform is really where we have to go,” said Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn. State law limits sources of revenue for jurisdictions.

But Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity — who supported the changes — said that controlling spending, not diversifying revenue should be the priority.

“It’s unfortunate that it took the pandemic for us to do this,” he said.

Graphic via Fairfax County Government

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With Thanksgiving on the horizon, many local entities and organizations will be closed.

Fairfax County government offices and Fairfax County Public Schools will be closed for Thanksgiving (Thursday, Nov. 25) and Black Friday (Nov. 26). County libraries are also closed both days.

Fairfax County Circuit Court, General District Court, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court close at noon today (Wednesday) through Friday.

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter is open for services by appointment only. For emergencies, contact Animal Protection Police at 703-691-2131.

All Department of Motor Vehicle service centers will be closed from Nov. 25 through Nov. 27.

While the Fairfax Connector has regular service today, riders can expect Sunday service on Thursday and holiday weekday service on Friday. More details on specific routes are available online.

Metrorail and Metrobus will also operate on a Sunday school tomorrow and offer week day service on Friday.

All recreation centers will open Thursday from 5 a.m. to noon with the exception of George Washington Recreation Center. All centers reopen on Friday.

The Fairfax County Government Center and South County Government Center vaccine clinic and the Tysons Community Vaccination center will be closed Thursday through Sunday for Thanksgiving. More locations are available online.

For trash and recycling collection, residents should contact their trash and recycling collector directly for any schedule changes due to the holiday.

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Individuals in Fairfax County’s annual Hypothermia Prevention Program enjoy a meal (courtesy FACETS)

Faith communities are once again opening their doors to Fairfax County’s homeless population this winter after a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county’s Hypothermia Prevention Program, which began in 2005, will run from Nov. 28 through April.

As in past years, the service will be operated by FACETS, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals affected by poverty, hunger and homelessness. The program serves people in across the county and the City of Falls Church in partnership with the local government and more than 40 faith communities.

FACETS Executive Director Joe Fay notes that the move was inspired by faith partners who felt more comfortable opening their doors due to the state’s high vaccination levels.

“The pandemic continues to create greater need and complicates efforts to help meet those needs,” Fay acknowledged, adding that safety measures will remain in effect to protect staff, volunteers and guests.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the county to adapt the program last year, as space limitations and the age of many volunteers made the churches and other buildings used in the past less viable.

The county instead set up its own sites and used hotels, which provided a good alternative to congregate settings because they allowed for social distancing, reducing transmission of the virus, Tom Barnett, the director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness told FFXnow.

While most of us were told to stay home to avoid the virus, people experiencing homelessness did not have that option. Older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions were especially vulnerable,” Barnett said. “Fairfax County expanded shelter capacity with hotels through the pandemic to accommodate the increased demand for shelter.”

As the focus shifts back to congregate settings, nonprofit organizations have been able to hire more staff to sustain operations at their shelters.

Barnett says faith communities returning to the hypothermia prevention program is a “tremendous resource.”

After a brief dip to moderate transmission levels, COVID-19 cases appear to have returned to August levels. The county’s level of community transmission has returned to substantial.

Barnett noted that the program will attempt to increase social distancing, require masks for guests and staff, and increase the frequency of facility cleaning. Hotels will remain open through the winter in order to isolate, quarantine, and protect individuals and to reduce overcrowding in other shelters.

The program is open to any adult in need of immediate shelter.

Existing shelters that serve single adults and auxiliary programs through faith community partners run the program, which offers warm shelter, food, and other supportive services. FACETS will also offer case management for guests who wish to move into safe and stable housing.

The number of people who are homeless and unvaccinated remains a challenge, FACETS spokesperson Shawn Flaherty says. The organization plans to focus on vaccine availability and health education this year, especially as economic anxiety and food insecurity appear to be on the rise.

“The pandemic has created more economic strain which is impacting the county’s homeless population. Also, they struggle to get personal protective equipment, and it [has] been harder for them to connect with resources and basic needs,” Flaherty said.

COVID-19 vaccines will be available for all guests.

The organization plans to continue operating a shelter out of a hotel in Alexandria for individuals impacted by the pandemic.

Despite the constraints, the Hypothermia Prevention Program was able to serve an average of 215 guests per night last year.

Barnett does not expect increased demand this year due to the pandemic.

“We are confident that we have the resources and connections in place to serve our unsheltered neighbors this winter,” he said.

Photo courtesy FACETS

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Fairfax County’s work release program has been shuttered since March 2020 due to the pandemic. But when the transitional program restarts, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office is unsure how it will be able to manage it.

Faced with an uncharacteristically high vacancy rate of 11.4%, the sheriff’s office says it’s changing how it operates to make basic functions possible. The office is tasked with operating the detention center, providing security for the courthouse and courtrooms, and serving the civil law process.

“Whenever the health department recommends that we can safely restart work release, we need to evaluate if we have sufficient staff to actually restart it,” said Andrea Ceisler, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

To manage, the office has redeployed staff from other areas to the Adult Detention Center and eliminated assignments to specialized units like the fugitive task force and gang unit. Hiring is ongoing, but the number of applications has dipped.

“Even with mandatory overtime, our squads are short-staffed,” Ceisler said. She says the office is also turning down new requests to take part in programs by community groups and schools.

The order to shut down the work release program — which allows some inmates to work and take part in community programs as they transition out of incarceration — came from the Fairfax County Health Department. It’s unclear when it will restart, but the decision will be guided by when community transmission levels are reduced from substantial to moderate or low.

Over the last three years, the number of inmates enrolled in the county’s work-release program has decreased significantly.

In 2017, 112 inmates were enrolled and 44 successfully completed the remainder of their sentence while in the program. In 2019, just 48 inmates were enrolled, though 32 completed the remainder of their sentence.

Over the last 10 years, the need for more staff has also grown — particularly at the detention center.

Cell blocks that can house 20 inmates typically hold 10 inmates, a configuration that dramatically reduces the number of fights and encourages more compliance with rules. An increase in training — including crisis intervention and mental health first aid — also takes off staff from their line of work.

“Should the pandemic end, we will have to evaluate staffing in the Alternative Incarceration Branch where the staff-to-inmate ratio is much smaller for programs such as Work Release, the Community Labor Force and STAR, our addiction treatment and recovery program,” Ceisler said. “For the safety and security of our staff, inmates and the people who live and work in the county, sufficient staffing in the Adult Detention Center must remain a top priority.”

Public safety and law enforcement departments have reported high vacancy rates nationally. Staffing has declined for the past eight years, with 86% of departments across the country reporting a shortage last year.

Major Tamara Gold, the sheriff’s office assistant chief, told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last month that the problem is expected to intensify in the coming months.

The office’s staff are paid between 2.5 and 7.5% less than equivalent positions in the Fairfax County Police Department. Many staff has left the office for employment with FCPD, which is grappling with its own staff shortage.

The sheriff’s office did resume its community labor force program earlier this year, where inmates work outdoors in crews of five under the supervision of an armed deputy sheriff. Crews complete landscaping, emergency snow removal, litter pick up, and other tasks.

Photo via Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office/Facebook

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The Fairfax County Police Department is grappling with high levels of understaffing and attrition, a problem that law enforcement officials warn could intensify in the coming months.

During a public safety committee with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Oct. 26), officials said understaffing and retention are impacting the entire public safety sector, including the Fire and Rescue Department, 9/11 call centers, and the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office.

“The FCPD is experiencing an unparalleled level of staffing shortages within its workforce,” FCPD Capt. Rachel Levy said, adding that the issue could become “an insurmountable task” for the agency to overcome if left unaddressed.

FCPD has 144 vacancies in its 1,484 authorized sworn force — a vacancy rate of nearly 10%. Currently, some officers work voluntary overtime. Others are pulled from special positions like neighborhood patrols and community outreach to fill gaps in shifts.

That’s despite undertaking what Levy described as an “unprecedented effort” for recruitment. This year, the police department hosted 109 recruitment events and initiatives, up from 54 in 2018.

Board members acknowledged that the county needs to increase the applicant pool, attract a higher number of qualified candidates, streamline the hiring process, and increase retention.

The missing piece — compensation — remains unaddressed. Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who chairs the public safety committee, called lack of competitive pay the “elephant in the room.”

Deputy Chief of Police Bob Blakley said the police department needs to be able to compete aggressively with other police departments to attract every candidate considering a career in law enforcement.

He says FCPD needs to double the number of officers it hires every year and slow attrition by encouraging officers near the 25-year retirement mark to stay for a few more years.

Blakley pointed to a recent 15% pay increase instituted through a collective bargaining agreement by the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland as a good example of competitive pay.

“We will never be able to compete with organizations that are going to just leave us in the dust. And [if] we’re going to be the best, we need to be the best,” he said.

Lusk said the board will work with its budget and personnel committees to determine next steps, including whether compensation increases are warranted.

FCPD did not immediately share its pay scale.

The issue of understaffing was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to board chairman Jeff McKay.

“Already, people are thinking if they want to work the same way they did,” he said, adding that he supports collective hiring and pay increases for public safety personnel.

The police officer shortage in the United States predates recent calls to “defund” the police, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, staffing has declined for the past eight years, with 86% of departments across the country reporting a shortage last year.

While the pandemic and anti-police sentiment have intensified issues, the shortage stems from staffing boosts granted by the federal government between 1996 and 2002. Hundreds of those positions are now eligible for full retirement, though some were eliminated through attrition during the economic downturn between 2008 and 2012.

This year, 27 Fairfax County police officers are expected to retire. Next year, an additional 48 will become eligible. The number continues to climb each year with not enough new recruits to fill in shoes.

Applications for the county’s police academy are down from 4,121 in 2015 to 1,450 as of last year.

Unlike previous years, Blakley said some officers who have been in the force for years are leaving for other careers like information technology.

Lusk suggested the county could bolster public safety recruitment efforts by improving the online hiring process.

The county sheriff’s office is facing similar issues, prompting it to eliminate some work-release programs to free up staff for other services. Further reductions may be needed in the future, officials say.

“We just can’t keep up with departures,” said Major Tamara Gold, sheriff’s office assistant chief. The office loses some of its staff to the police department, which offers between 2.5% and 7.5% more pay.

The Department of Public Safety Communications has started aggressively recruiting at the high school level. The department’s priority is ensuring its 911 call center is fully staffed, Assistant Director Lorraine Fells-Danzer said.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said legislation that he called “anti-law enforcement” — like the Police Civilian Review Panel  — is deterring people from becoming police officers.

“What I haven’t heard today is our plan…moving forward,” he said.

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Spotted lanterfly (via Magi Kern/Unsplash)

Fairfax County officials have a simple message for anyone who spots a spotted lanternfly: kill it immediately.

Native to China, the invasive insect can spread far and wide through its egg masses, making its way to Fairfax County via a recent shipment to a grocery store in Annandale. Loudoun County has also confirmed multiple sightings, but its presence has not reached the level of an infestation — yet.

“This is a relatively new pest in the area and the county is concerned about the potential impact this pest may pose,” Joan Allen, chief of the county’s forest pest management branch, told FFXnow.

Allen says that while the county has not found evidence of an infestation, the county has received several reports of a hitchhiker spotted lanternfly.

The insect can cause serious damage to home and commercial gardens, according to county officials. It thrives on more than 70 plant species, including grapes, apples, stone fruits, and tree-of-heaven. Officials say the state’s peach, apple, grape, and wine industries are most threatened by the insect.

The spotted lanternfly releases a sticky substance called honeydew that attracts wasps and ants. This substance can also encourage mold to grow on plants and trees, which can cover leaves, stunt plant growth, and ruin crops.

Although the insect has been in Virginia since 2018, its recent emergence has prompted the city of Winchester and Frederick, Clarke, and Warren counties to institute a spotted lanternfly quarantine. This effort is intended to slow its spread to un-infested areas of the state.

Businesses must receive a state permit and inspect articles to ensure that they do not contain any life stage of the spotted lanternfly, according to Fairfax County. This quarantine has been in effect since May 2019.

The insect has different colors during four different nymph stages. The county offers the following description of the insect’s changing appearance.

There are black and white nymphs; red, black and white nymphs; and adults. Adult lanternflies have gray-brown forewings, a black head and black spots. When at rest the hind wings, which are crimson in color, can be partially seen through the semi-translucent forewings, which gives the lanternfly a reddish cast. The lanternfly’s abdomen is yellow with black and white bands on the tip and bottom.

October is egg-laying season for most of the insects. Egg masses are typically covered with a light gray wax that looks like mud when it dries.

From this month through July, the county encourages residents to scrape egg masses from trees and trunks with adhesive bands. Scrapings should be discarded in containers of rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. Stump treatments, hack and squirt treatments, foliar sprays, and basal bark sprays can help during the other parts of the year.

For now, any spotted lanternfly should be killed immediately.

The first spotted lanternflies in the United States were found in Pennsylvania in 2014, according to the National Capital Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.

Four years later, Virginia officials documented the state’s first lanternflies infestation in Winchester. A quarantine was enacted by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to slow the spread of the infestation.

Photo via Magi Kern/Unsplash

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