(Updated at 3:50 p.m.) As Fairfax County prepares for a “likely” wave of omicron infections, officials are cautiously optimistic that vaccination rates and the potentially less-severe illness caused by the variant may prevent a surge like what was seen last winter.
Fairfax County Health Department Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu and epidemiologist Dr. Ben Schwartz lauded the county’s vaccination rates in a status update for the Board of Supervisors’ health and human services committee on Tuesday (Dec. 14).
At the same time, the officials urged residents to get their booster shots in anticipation of already-rising case rates getting accelerated by the omnicron variant that’s quickly spreading around the globe.
While early research suggests the variant is more transmissible and has an increased ability to infect those who are already vaccinated, officials remain hopeful that Fairfax County can avoid a winter surge as drastic as the one seen a year ago.
“We are likely to have an omicron wave here,” said Schwartz. “[But] what we are hearing so far about omicron is that there are fewer hospitalizations.”
The COVID-19 vaccines, particularly booster shots, help prevent severe illness, the experts note. Nearly 69% of all Fairfax Health District residents are considered fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the D.C. area.
But that doesn’t mean residents no longer need to be cautious or careful during the holiday season.
“Even if most infections are mild, a highly transmissible variant could result in enough cases to overwhelm the health care systems,” Schwartz said.
Booster shots are being highly recommended as well as continuing to mask indoors, even if it’s technically no longer required.
“We’ve got to stay with the mitigation efforts,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “I know everyone is exhausted with them, but now is no time to let our guard down.”
Omicron aside, hospitalizations and deaths are currently down across the county, with officials crediting vaccinations.
In addition, while infections were once higher among communities of color compared to the county’s white population, those rates have since more or less evened out.
“This is…a consequence of vaccination, where Hispanics in Fairfax County have a higher vaccination coverage rate than other racial and ethnic groups,” Schwartz said.
Children between the ages of 5 and 9 currently have the highest rate of infection, likely due to that age group just being approved for vaccines a little over a month ago.
Cases within Fairfax County Public Schools, though, have remained very low, according to county health department statistics. Just 0.76% of all students have contracted COVID-19 since late September. The rate is highest among elementary school students, likely due to the delay in vaccination approval.
To this point, 40 school outbreaks have occurred, which are classified as three or more cases within a class or group, but no schools have had to close due to COVID-19.
“This should be proclaimed very widely to the community. These school numbers…are a massive success,” McKay said.
Fairfax County will phase out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in county operations.
Gas-powered leaf blowers are too noisy, dirty, and do not adhere to the newly-adopted Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan, according to several county supervisors. Instead, officials are recommending the use of electric equipment, along with leaf and grasscycling.
Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw presented a joint board matter directing county staff to develop a plan for ending gas-powered leaf blower purchases at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The board approved the matter by a vote of 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity dissenting.
“The use of gas-powered leaf blowers presents a number of problems,” said Walkinshaw at the meeting. “Most prominently, their extreme and pentertraing noise levels and the highly toxic emissions from the out of date two stroke engines.”
Walkinshaw noted that the blowers operate at a noise level that could potentially cause hearing damage. He also mentioned that they are inefficient in terms of its output and emit 23 times the amount of carbon dioxide as a Ford pickup truck.
The board matter additionally calls for contractors that work for the county to begin transitioning away from this type of equipment, encouraged by incentives from the county.
“By taking an incentive-based approach to our procurement policies, we can jumpstart the transition from dirty and noisy gas-powered blowers,” wrote Walkinshaw in a statement. “This initiative sends a strong signal to landscaping contractors that now is the time to invest in cleaner equipment.”
However, specific incentives were not discussed and will be established “when staff reports back,” a spokesperson from Walkinshaw’s office wrote to FFXnow in an email.
As of yet, there’s no deadline established for the phase out.
During the meeting, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn noted that the county currently owns 133 gas-powered leaf blowers.
However, that number doesn’t include ones used by contractors who work for the county, a spokesperson from Walkinshaw’s office confirmed.
Alcron said he still hoped that this idea of banning gas blowers would be also adopted by the Virginia General Assembly, but stated that the county’s adoption was “clearly a step in the right direction.”
McKay acknowledged converting to an entirely electric fleet of blowers could be very expensive for some contractors, but hopes that the county phasing out this type of equipment is “leading by example.”
A cost estimate for phasing out this equipment isn’t available yet, but it’s expected to be minimal, according to Walkinshaw’s office.
Photo via Cbaile19/Wikimedia Commons
(Updated at 2:10 p.m. on 10/1/2021) All Fairfax County employees will be required to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests by Monday, Oct. 11, FFXnow has learned.
County government employees who do not get vaccinated or are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 11 will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing to remain employed, including if they receive a medical or religious exemption.
While the county has started providing booster shots to eligible individuals, people are still considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after they receive the second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine.
Fairfax County announced that it will implement a vaccine requirement back in August, but no specific date was given for when the mandate would take effect beyond “this fall.”
The county announced its requirement the same day that Fairfax County Public Schools shared its own vaccine mandate for employees, which it said will take effect “late October.”
An FCPS spokesperson confirmed that the end of October remains the school system’s goal for when all employees are expected to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
Back in July, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to direct County Executive Bryan Hill to evaluate the possibility of a vaccine requirement for county employees.
“We know vaccinations save lives and that these vaccines are safe and effective,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay wrote in a statement back in August. “Throughout the pandemic we have focused on measures to keep our employees and our community safe, and this is another key piece of that effort. As one of the largest employers in Virginia, and one that has successfully and consistently stressed to our residents the importance of being vaccinated, we must practice what we preach.”
FFXnow has reached out to the SEIU Virginia 512, one of the unions that represent Fairfax County employees, but did not receive any comment as of publication.
The Fairfax Workers Coalition, which describes itself as “a viable alternative for workers seeking representation and a voice in Fairfax County Government,” told FFXnow that it is very supportive of the mandate.
However, the coalition is concerned about the lack of communication and education about the requirement to its workforce. “The county communicates via email and links, but our members are out in the streets working 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.,” says David Lyons of the Fairfax Workers Coalition. “They may not get the information.”
The county’s vaccine requirement falls in line with policies announced by other jurisdictions in the D.C. area, including Arlington County, which has had a mandate in place since the end of August, and Loudoun County, which has not set a timeline yet.
Alexandria City Mayor Justin Wilson said in August that the city anticipated implementing a vaccination requirement in the “September/October timeframe.”
D.C. announced on Sept. 20 that school and child-care workers in the city must get vaccinated with no option to produce a negative test instead. FCPS told FFXnow that it is not changing its plans to have a testing option for employees who don’t get vaccinated.
Virginia’s requirement for state government employees took effect on Sept. 1, and President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Sept. 9 requiring all federal government workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Photo via Machvee/Flickr
Fairfax County has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and now, it has a plan to achieve that goal.
First proposed by the board’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council in 2018, the plan features an inventory of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and recommendations for how to curb them so the community can realize its aspirations of carbon neutrality.
“Together, the strategies and actions are intended to power individuals and organizations within the community, to engage in, lead, and champion the emissions reduction needed to achieve county-wide carbon neutrality,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said, reading from the board matter he issued. “Climate change is a major existential crisis already causing major impacts in Fairfax County.”
Proposals include cutting the use of fossil fuel-burning cars, installing solar panels at home, creating more through recycling and composting programs, adopting more stringent green-building policies, and being a “conscious consumer.”
Storck’s motion passed 9-0, with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity not present during the vote.
A few moments before the vote, Herrity said he was going to abstain due to concerns over timing, lack of proper community engagement, and cost, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The economic outlook over the next few years is uncertain,” Herrity said. “Our decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. This plan will have planned and unintended impacts on the economy and taxpayers. Beyond what I’m imagining will be a very steep cost to implement this plan, it will also have a very serious impact on the affordability of homes, increasing the actual cost as well as permitting and regulatory costs.”
The rest of the board countered that the county can’t afford to wait any longer to address the already-existing threat of climate change.
“The cost of doing nothing is significant, if not life-threatening,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “And I think most responsible people who are paying attention to the subject and the science…most certainly get that.”
Storck, who helped spearhead the CECAP as chair of the board’s environmental committee, reiterated that county operations and schools only account for about 5% of Fairfax County’s carbon emissions. The remaining 95% of emissions come from the private sector and the general community.
As noted in a presentation that Storck delivered, transportation and commercial and residential energy consumption are the two largest sources of greenhouse emissions. Combined, those areas produce more than 90% of all emissions in the county.
As a result, while the county will have a leadership role, this new plan is about asking the community to take the necessary steps to curb emissions, Storck said.
“There will be no area, sector, or part of our society that won’t be impacted [by the reduction goals in this plan],” he said. “How much? That’s largely a function of how aggressively we move forward.”
As the county worked to finalize the CECAP over the summer, the United Nations released a sobering report last month that said, even if future emissions are lowered, global temperatures will continue to rise until at least the middle of the 21st century, leading to more extreme weather and other worsening climate issues.
County staff told the board’s environmental committee in July that the CECAP’s implementation was already underway, a process that includes community outreach, public education, and an exhaustive review of existing county policies to see how they line up with the now-accepted plan.
Additional plans related to the initiative’s implementation, such as how the county can build on existing programs, will be presented to the board at an environmental committee meeting in early 2022.
Photo via Sandra Parra/Unsplash