Like the rest of the country, Fairfax County continues to see increasing levels of COVID-19 transmission.
The county is now averaging about three times as many new cases per day as it was less than a month ago, with a seven-day average of 189.4 cases today (Monday), according to Virginia Department of Health data.
In comparison, the county was averaging 58.7 cases a day for the preceding week on Nov. 10. That day was the first time the weekly average dipped below 60 cases since the delta variant started becoming prevalent in late July.
Including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, the Fairfax Health District reported an additional 131 COVID-19 infections today, bringing its total for the pandemic to 97,999 cases, 4,201 hospitalizations, and 1,227 deaths.
Locally, the ongoing coronavirus surge comes without any apparent assistance from the omicron variant, which has been detected in 17 states so far, including Maryland. Virginia is monitoring the relatively new variant but has not identified any cases involving it yet.
While initial reports suggest the omicron variant may not produce severe illness like the delta variant, concerns that it might be more transmissible and less susceptible to the immunity granted by vaccines prompted the Fairfax County Health Department to strengthen its recommendation that all adults get a booster shot six months after their primary vaccinations on Thursday (Dec. 2).
“Taking measures to reduce the spread of infection, including getting a COVID-19 vaccine, is the best way to slow the emergence of new variants,” Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu said in the blog post.
So far, more than 238,000 Fairfax Health District residents have gotten a booster or third dose, including 63.5% of adults between the ages of 75 and 84, according to the FCHD vaccine data dashboard.
908,544 residents — or 76.8% of the population — have received at least one vaccine dose, including 86.8% of adults, 89.4% of adolescents aged 12-17, and 36.2% of children aged 5-11.
Representing 68% of the population, 804,239 residents are fully vaccinated, including 78.8% of people 18 and older.
Providers in the Fairfax Health District have administered over 1.9 million vaccine doses. If the current weekly average of about 7,440 doses per day holds, the district could potentially reach 2 million doses around the one-year anniversary of when the county received its first shipment last December.
Photo via CDC/Unsplash
Fairfax County Public Library offered at-home COVID-19 test kits to the community for the first time this morning (Friday). An hour later, they were all gone.
The county announced on Monday (Nov. 29) that it would join a pilot program that the Virginia Department of Health launched last month to distribute free COVID-19 tests through participating public libraries.
FCPL received 2,300 BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Card Home Test that were made available at its 13 open community branches and eight regional libraries when they opened at 10 a.m. today.
All of the kits were distributed within the first hour, according to FCPL spokesperson Erin Julius, who says demand was high at all branches.
“The high demand for these test kits this morning indicates a continued need for accessible COVID-19 testing kits in Fairfax County, and FCPL is pleased to help distribute them,” FCPL Director Jessica Hudson said. “Libraries are trusted community hubs and we are glad to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community by making testing kits more accessible. We will continue to distribute tests as more are made available to us.”
Julius said the state is sending more test kits that will arrive next week, but she advises residents to call their local branch to ensure their availability before visiting. The library system also asks that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms request a kit using its contactless curbside pickup service.
VDH says the number of test kits distributed to participating localities depends on the size of each library system and feedback about how much interest they expect in the program, along with the general availability of supplies.
“The uptake varies,” VDH spokesperson Cheryl Rodriguez said. “However, some library systems are reporting that distribution has been brisk.”
According to VDH data, COVID-19 testing has been trending upwards in the Fairfax Health District since early November, with a spike seen in the days leading up to Thanksgiving (Nov. 25).
Fairfax County joined the state’s library test kits pilot slightly later than the other participating localities, but the move comes amid rising COVID-19 cases and renewed anxiety over the new omicron variant, which was confirmed in the U.S. for the first time on Wednesday (Dec. 1).
The Fairfax County Health Department said there has been increased demand for testing throughout Virginia recently, and offering free test kits at libraries gives people an alternative when retail supplies have been low.
Rapid COVID-19 tests have been in short supply since this summer after declining testing rates led manufacturers to decrease production. As infections surged again due to the delta variant, the federal government committed over $560 million to help boost the country’s supply.
“During the late summer months and early fall, many states across the country experienced limited access to rapid testing kits, due in part to slower production,” Rodriguez said. “However, production is increasing and more rapid tests should become available.”
Photo via Jernej Furman/Flickr
Two days before Thanksgiving, the 29 Diner was decimated by a fire. The next day, owner John K. Wood got back to work.
“It was a total loss,” Wood told FFXnow of the damage to the iconic, 74-year-old Fairfax City eatery. “But there’s nothing to be sorry about. It’s time to celebrate what this diner means to the community. I’m going to be here every day that I can — rain, sleet, snow — to watch the rebirth of the 29 Diner.”
Firefighters got a call around 6 p.m. on Nov. 23 about an explosion in the back of the building, WJLA reported. When crews arrived, a fire had spread from a storage room where chemicals were being stored to the kitchen across the way.
“It was a chemical fire that reached about 700 degrees,” said Wood, a Robinson High School graduate who has owned the diner since 2014.
Thankfully, no one was in the building at the time, but the fire rendered the kitchen completely unusable. Wood estimates it could take six months for the kitchen to be restored so the diner can reopen.
He’s already getting significant help from the community to do just that. A GoFundMe campaign set up to help Wood rebuild and support the employees that have lost their jobs has amassed over $54,000 in just a week’s time.
“I’m on the wings of the community and I feel the love,” Wood said.
A cozy spot to get a short stack and two eggs over easy, 29 Diner is also a historic landmark. In 1992, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for being a “uniquely American form of roadside architecture.”
The pre-assembled metal, glass, and double-wide diner was considered the “Cadillac of diners,” Wood says, when it emerged in 1947. The building was manufactured in New Jersey and purchased by original owner D.T. “Bill” Glascock, who placed it along Fairfax Boulevard, which was called Lee Highway then, like Route 29 still is (for now) in Fairfax County.
Wood reveals a little-known secret about the restaurant: a 1,500 square-foot basement, the dimensions of a good-sized townhouse, runs the entire length of the diner.
29 Diner grew with the region, becoming a hub of community in Fairfax. It did go through several owners, including Fredy and Virginia Guevara, who was a server there in the 1960s. When the couple retired, Wood took over.
“You step into that diner, and it just takes you back to when you were 9 years old and you got your first milkshake,” Wood told The Washington Post when he became the owner in 2014.
Wood has been a proud steward ever since. Open 24 hours, six days a week, the diner has become a headquarters of sorts for a number of charitable endeavors, raising money for causes from feeding those in need to supporting families with cancer and veteran suicide prevention.
Not even a destructive fire can dim Wood’s perpetual optimism and commitment to giving back.
“This is going to give us a chance to remodel, in the way the Lord wanted us to have,” he said.”We are going to set up a more inclusive kitchen, [better] wheelchair access, and help disabled veterans.”
Wood is planning a number of events in the coming weeks to help raise money, including runs and a motorcycle rally.
He says a big chunk of donations will also go toward providing for his employees and their families while they wait for the diner to reopen.
Rich Berkwitz, who set up the GoFundMe campaign, appreciates everything Wood has done for the diner and community. A teacher at Mark Twain Middle School in Alexandria and an assistant wrestling coach at John Lewis High School, he says he eats at 29 Diner “pretty much every week” because “it feels like home.”
“I’m so happy that the community is backing him as much as he’s back to the community,” he said. “He’s just so giving.”
It’s unlikely that 29 Diner will reopen prior to June 2022, but Wood has faith in the future.
“It’s going to come back better than it was,” he said. “That wasn’t a fire. That was the Lord paying a visit to the 29 Diner.”
A task force of nearly 30 people has recommended renaming two highways in Fairfax County, following concerns that their invocation of the Confederacy runs counter to the county’s goal of creating an inclusive environment.
After months of meetings and debate, the Confederate Names Task Force voted 20-6 yesterday (Tuesday) in favor of a change for Lee Highway (also known as Route 29) and 19-6 for Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (Route 50), with at-large member Tim Thompson abstaining.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and state’s Commonwealth Transportation Board would have to sign off on any name changes.
Some committee members argued that renaming the highways would “erase history.” Jenee Lindner, one of four Springfield District representatives, said doing so was wrong.
“If we’re going to move forward, let’s eradicate that term, ‘erasing history.’ It’s not true. Personally, we’re erasing stupidity and injustice and immorality,” Pastor Paul Sheppard from Providence District countered.
Dranesville District representative Barbara Glakas, a retired teacher from Fairfax County Public Schools, said if Confederate leaders had their way, the U.S. might look more like Europe, with fragmented countries, and slavery might have continued for much longer.
The task force’s votes diverged from the results of the public survey, where 23,500 respondents said they support keeping the names as they are, and 16,265 called for changing them.
“We can’t just ignore that opinion, whether you agree with it or not,” said Braddock District’s Robert Floyd, who voted against the recommendations and was one of a handful of people who tuned into the meeting remotely.
The survey was more designed to be a pulse check than as a poll that met scientific sampling standards and could be representative of the entire population. It had a mechanism to prevent people from taking it repeatedly, but it only blocked Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, meaning people could still participate multiple times, skewing results.
For respondents who wanted the highways to be renamed, many people proposed using Route 29 and Route 50, which are already used on maps.
Sully District committee member Marvin Powell said society renames things all the time and the county needs to think of the citizens of today and tomorrow.
The committee also discussed how families’ properties were taken by eminent domain for the roads in question. Sheppard said his family was affected and joked one road could have originally been named after his family.
The Board of Supervisors appointed the task force in July after the Fairfax County History Commission compiled an inventory of streets, monuments, and public places with names tied to the Confederacy. It found “approximately 157 assets, including parks, within the County that bear confirmed Confederate associated names,” the December 2020 report said.
Michael Champness, an at-large member of the Confederate Names Task Force, said before the votes that changing the two highway names sends an important message, but the county doesn’t necessarily need to rename all of those landmarks.
“We might be in a good position to maybe call a truce after this,” he said, before voting “yes” on each motion. “I think it’s very important to change these names because it’s important to be heard. It’s important for action to take place…but I don’t think we need to try and change every street name.”
The task force is scheduled to vote on Dec. 13 on alternative names to recommend to the Board of Supervisors, which could schedule a public hearing and act on the recommendations in early 2022.
Fairfax County housing officials want to assist religious congregations interested in using their existing buildings or land to help create affordable housing.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors talked about the idea at its housing committee meeting last Tuesday (Nov. 23). While in the preliminary stages of discussion, the proposed collaboration could help religious groups that need to sell vacant property to address struggling finances, officials suggested.
“A lot of these congregations are, especially the older ones, are facing economic and financial pressures, and they’re looking for a lifeline out of that,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “We’re in a little bit of a race against time here.”
He shared that developers are asking to buy excess land from religious groups and build million-dollar-plus homes on those parcels, thereby giving faith organizations revenue that would help them continue providing services to their congregations.
Senior Facility Could Serve as Model
Faith organizations have a model for one way to approach redeveloping their land through Chesterbrook Residences, an assisted living facility with a capacity for 109 residents that opened at 2030 Westmoreland St. in McLean in 2007.
The project used land donated by the Chesterbrook Presbyterian Church, which sought to create an assisted living facility for low-income seniors when it dissolved in 2000, according to a history provided by Chesterbrook Residences.
The $13.5 million project also involved a partnership with the Lewinsville and Immanuel Presbyterian churches and Temple Rodef Shalom. Local and federal grants provided $12 million, and the religious groups raised the remainder, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman said in a blog post.
“The National Capital Presbytery donated the land for this project. Without this gift, the cost would likely have been too burdensome,” Schwartzman wrote.
Other Options for Religious Groups
Places of worship could also pursue other strategies, such as retrofitting part of a building, while still maintaining a worship space.
They could demolish an existing structure to build a new one with both housing and worship space, according to Judith Cabelli, director of the county’s Affordable Housing Development Division.
“There might be a…parking lot on site that is much larger than the house of worship needs, and a multifamily building could be built on that parking lot, and then parking could be reconfigured,” she said.
But the complex and sometimes lengthy permitting approval process can create barriers.
Chairman Jeff McKay noted that congregations could also face development challenges, from stormwater management to zoning. Their buildings may be located in environmentally sensitive areas that limit development.
To address those concerns, county leaders are looking for ways to streamline the approval process, possibly working with an initial batch of congregations to help their projects succeed. If that route is pursued, the initial group could later be expanded to more congregations, McKay suggested.
County staff proposed providing a handout, a video, or another resource to help religious groups. Cabelli said the county envisions having community educational meetings and adding a “Faith in Housing” section to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s website.
An informational video could be launched in early 2022 with meetings to follow throughout the year.
Housing and Community Development Director Tom Fleetwood said he plans to continue examining possible approaches to bring back to the housing committee.
In many ways, this past Thanksgiving weekend looked much more normal than last year’s isolated celebrations.
COVID-19 vaccines enabled many people to gather again with family and friends. Black Friday shoppers returned in droves to local malls, and air travel reached a pandemic high of 2.3 million air travelers the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 24) — only for that to be topped by 2.4 million travelers yesterday (Sunday), according to the Transportation Security Administration.
However, like a crotchety relative who overstays their welcome, the coronavirus still proved difficult to ignore, as reports emerged of a new variant of concern dubbed Omicron that was first identified in South Africa last week but has since been detected in at least a dozen countries, including Canada.
While no cases have been reported in the U.S. yet, and it’s unclear exactly what kind of threat Omicron poses, news of a new, potentially more transmissible variant comes as Fairfax County grapples with already climbing infection rates.
The county’s seven-day average hit a high for November on last Thursday (Nov. 25) with 141.6 cases — the highest weekly average since there were 143.4 new cases per day on Oct. 23, just before the late-summer Delta variant surge waned.
After a slight dip over the weekend, the addition of 149 cases today (Monday) has the weekly average sitting at 119.6 cases.
The Fairfax Health District, including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, has recorded a total of 96,651 COVID-19 cases during the pandemic. 4,189 residents have been hospitalized, and 1,226 residents have died, with one death reported in the past week.
Citing an increased demand for testing amid the recent COVID-19 surge, the Fairfax County Health Department announced this morning that the county’s public library branches will soon serve as distribution sites for at-home test kits as part of a state-led pilot program.
Quantities are expected to be limited, but the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Card Home Test kits will be available for free at all 13 of Fairfax County Public Library’s community branches and its eight regional branches starting on Friday (Dec. 3).
The tests are conducted online through eMed. The results are reported within 15 minutes and automatically shared with the Virginia Department of Health.
“Libraries are trusted community hubs, and we are pleased to support public health initiatives like this partnership with the Virginia Department of Health,” FCPL Director Jessica Hudson said in a statement.
The Fairfax Health District averaged 3,861 testing encounters a day for the past week as of Nov. 25. The current seven-day positivity rate for all tests, including rapid antigen tests, is 4.2%.
“For people who have a hard time finding a test kit at a pharmacy or who can’t afford a kit, the new library program provides another opportunity to receive a test kit,” FCHD spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said.
COVID-19 testing is also still available from health care providers and clinics, and those who are exhibiting symptoms or have had contact with someone who tested positive can visit FCHD sites.
At the same time, vaccination rates continue to increase, with 883,825 district residents — 74.7% of the total population — having now received at least one dose. That includes 85.1% of people aged 18 and older and nearly 30% of children aged 5-11, according to the Fairfax County Health Department.
775,361 residents — 77.5% of adults and 65.5% of the population overall — are fully vaccinated.
65-74 year olds and 75-84 year olds lead the way in terms of vaccinations, with over 99% of both those age groups getting at least one vaccine dose. 51.3% of 75-84 year olds have gotten a booster shot, the highest rate of any age group, though more doses have been administered to younger residents.
Photo via CDC/Unsplash
Fairfax County housing officials are looking at ways to make affordable homes more of a reality for residents, as the value of land continues to jump.
The Board of Supervisors discussed last Tuesday (Nov. 23) how local government could help with not just affordability, but also wealth-building through homeownership, Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said at the housing committee meeting.
“We’re seeing this imbalance of more expensive properties and more need in the community,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said.
Exacerbating the problem of affordable housing is a disparity among different ethnicities in Fairfax County. County data found that, for one period, 44% of Black people and 48% of Hispanic/Latino residents owned homes, compared to 67% for Asians and Pacific Islanders and 76% for whites.
On top of that, two-thirds of the homes in Fairfax County that low and moderate-income residents could afford are occupied by residents making about 80% of the area median income and above, according to a county presentation.
Community Land Trusts Proposed
Now, the county government could pursue a new strategy that mirrors what communities across the country have done: community land trusts, where a nonprofit owns the land and maintains housing as affordable into perpetuity.
Under a potential pilot program, the land could be held by the county’s housing authority, which would reduce the price of homes by taking out land costs, Department of Housing and Community Development Director Tom Fleetwood said.
The county identified a property adjacent to the James Lee Community Center in West Falls Church as one possible site but stressed that no final decision has been made. The presentation acted as an initial brainstorming session to further refine proposals.
The board requested more information from county staff, including how such a proposal would affect property taxes, how other communities have fared with such initiatives, and what would be the best resale formula allowing homeowners to sell while maintaining the properties’ affordability.
However, housing prices continue to climb, and 67% of low-income households in Northern Virginia have to spend more than half their income on housing costs — the highest rate of any large metropolitan area in the country, according to the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia.
Gross said it seems like the region is fighting a losing battle, where it’s common for someone to pay $500,000 more than the assessed value of a property.
Board Expresses Interest in Idea
The county has touted the potential of using its available land for affordable housing efforts, but there’s still room to grow.
Fairfax County owns at least $50 million worth of assessed properties for over 100 parcels that could be used for commercial, residential, or other uses, not including properties in floodplains and land already in use.
At least $10 million in assessed property is listed as vacant but nonbuildable. It wasn’t clear if other restrictions, such as environmental issues, setbacks, and prior plans, limited the use of those properties.
Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk wondered if the county could quantify available parcels for the community land trust-like initiative.
“It’s a very large number of sites. I can’t quantify it for you, but only a small percentage may be appropriate for this,” Fleetwood said.
Chairman Jeff McKay said he thought the proposal presented was an excellent idea to see how it would work and examine how the county could tweak it in the future.
County leaders also noted that while new housing stock is important, they’re also looking for ways to improve existing homes.
Lusk suggested reexamining the threshold for the county’s existing affordable housing initiatives. Its first-time homebuyer program, for instance, is currently limited to people making up to 70% of the area median income.
Students and staff in the LGBTQIA+ community expressed relief yesterday (Tuesday) after Fairfax County Public Schools announced that it will return a pair of challenged, queer-centered books to library shelves.
“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” — a coming-of-age story about a Mexican American man that deals with race, class, and sexual identity — were pulled from circulation in late September after parents complained that they contained graphic sexual content unsuitable for children.
Two committees convened to review the books determined the complaints were without merit and that the books have literary merit in line with FCPS’ goal of supporting a diverse student body, including through its library materials, the school system said.
The Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQIA+ advocacy group, praised the decision as an affirmation of its argument that the books are “valuable sources of support” for vulnerable students, not pornography or pedophelia as alleged by the complaints.
“I am relieved that our libraries will continue to have books that depict people like me,” a Westfield High School student said in a news release. “It is isolating when LGBTQIA+ students are singled out and already limited Queer representation is taken away.”
FCPS Pride, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group for employees, said its members were pleased that “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” will be returned to circulation.
Kobabe’s memoir will be reinstated at the 12 high schools that currently own it, and Evison’s novel will be available at seven high schools, according to FCPS.
“Having read the the books and knowing that FCPS has a commitment to including and welcoming all students, we had faith that the process would be followed and literature that allows LGBTQIA+ students to see themselves, and which allows their peers to see that they exist, would be returned to circulation,” FCPS Pride said in a statement.
With book challenges cropping up across the country in recent months, many of them targeting books about gender and sexual identity or race, FCPS Pride co-president Robert Rigby Jr. tied the complaints against “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” to a larger political backlash to LGBTQIA+ inclusion, pointing to a blog post accusing teachers of using Gay-Straight Alliances to “recruit” children that was shared by the Fairfax County Republican Committee as an example.
FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Department Noel Klimenko confirmed to FFXnow that formal complaints were filed against the two books, but the issue gained attention when conservative-leaning media outlets and advocates shared mother Stacy Langton’s remarks from a contentious school board meeting on Sept. 23.
“LGBTQ students and their peaceful existence in classes and schools have become ‘collateral damage,’ with uncaring people exploiting their existence for other purposes,” Rigby said.
Langton wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Examiner that her complaint stemmed from concern about pornographic materials in schools, not as an objection to LGBTQ characters, stating that she’s aware of the discrimination that community faces because her mother was lesbian.
Klimenko, who made the final decision to reinstate “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” says book challenges tend to get politicized since they deal with free speech issues and people’s subjective opinions about what constitutes objectionable art.
The publicity around Langton’s complaint and claims that the books depicted pedophelia, which turned out to be unfounded, prompted FCPS to remove the books from circulation — a departure from past practices, as the school system has historically left books on shelves while they’re under review.
“We decided we needed to have an abundance of caution and go ahead and remove those books,” Klimenko said. “But now that this decision has been made, the books will be returned to the libraries that had them prior to the challenge.”
FCPS’ regulation on handling book challenges doesn’t explicitly state whether books should remain available while being reviewed.
Klimenko says staff will consult with school board members and other stakeholders to see if there were any concerns with how the two-month-long process played out, but overall, FCPS upheld its established policies, which had not been tested since the last library material challenge in 2015.
“I think it’s really important that Fairfax County Public Schools has a procedure for both identifying books to put in our libraries and also for challenging them,” she said. “I feel like we’ve taken great care and deliberation with this decision.”
Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky, who represents Sully District, says there have not been any conversations so far about reexamining the challenged materials regulation, which was last updated on Feb. 16.
She expressed support for parents playing “a robust and active role in their children’s education.”
Langton told the Washington Examiner earlier this month that she was barred from the Fairfax High School library after visiting with her son to check out a book.
FCPS doesn’t accommodate unscheduled visits to school libraries or other instructional spaces during class hours, but it allows pre-arranged visits before and after the school day. Its library catalogs can also be viewed online.
“I encourage parents to be involved in conversations with their students about all aspects of their school experience, including their literary choices,” Pekarsky said in a statement. “I continue to trust the professionalism of our school librarians and appreciate the time and care they devote to procuring collections that will serve a diverse student body.”
Photo via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
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.
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