County pauses lifting more restrictions as coronavirus cases increase

As number of COVID-19 cases increases, county holding off on lifting more restrictions

Could return to more ‘restrictive environment,’ Elrich says

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Amid a recent increase in COVID-19 cases, Montgomery County is holding off on lifting more restrictions and may have to return to a “more restrictive environment,” County Executive Marc Elrich says.

The county has added more than 100 cases of COVID-19 five times in the past eight days — including a spike of 159 more cases recorded on Friday morning, the largest one-day increase since the end of July.

There were eight days with daily case increases of more than 100 in September and five days in August.

Elrich said during a media briefing on Thursday that cases are increasing across the country and in other countries, as well, which could indicate a second surge of cases. “It certainly appears to be coming,” he said.

Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s deputy health officer, told Bethesda Beat that the county’s case increases are part of a national trend.

The county is hovering around 10 cases per 100,000 in the last week or so, Bridgers said, which indicates the county is on the higher end of a moderate transmission range.

“[The increase] indicates we’re moving towards a high transmission category,” Bridgers said.
Although the county’s cases have increased, its test positivity rate has stayed relatively low at 3.2%. But it’s still seen a slight increase. Last week, it was 2.9%

The last time the county had 10 cases per 100,000 was in early August.

“Our test positivity rate — I guess that’s the encouraging part of this, but 100 cases a day continues to mean that people are going out and getting infected by other people who most likely don’t know they’re carrying [it,]” Elrich said. “So we need to get everybody we can possibly get tested.”

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said at the briefing that an increase in hospitalizations is likely.

“We know that hospitalization always lags with increases in cases, meaning you’ll see an increase in cases today and you may not see the increase in cases for hospitalizations for two weeks,” he said. “But simultaneous to that recognition is that if you do a change today, you won’t see that change in hospitalization rate decreasing for weeks, too.”

The county doesn’t want to wait on seeing hospitalizations increase before acting, he said.

The three-day rolling average for hospitalizations in the county was 86 on Thursday — a level that hasn’t been that high since Aug. 12, according to Stoddard.

Stoddard said the county isn’t at a “point of alarming” yet.

Officials had been considering allowing additional activities, such as escape rooms and live performances, but will not be moving forward until it finishes investigating the increase in cases.

“We’re not necessarily saying we’re not going to do those things, to be clear,” Stoddard said. “But we’re pausing them for now while we investigate exactly the cause for this uptick and see exactly categorically where we are seeing an increase in cases.”

If the county has a sustained case increase rate over the next two weeks, officials expect to have a “more serious conversation” about where the county is, Stoddard said.

If the county does take a step back and put restrictions back into place, Elrich and Stoddard said, it would target indoor activities where a face covering is removed for part of the activity, such as dining.

“I guess what you try to do is unwind from how we added things in the first place,” Elrich said. “The truth is that every single thing you do adds cases. Anything you do that adds contact points — opportunities for people to come into contact with each other — increases the risk of transmission. You can’t avoid that.”

Stoddard said stepping back might not mean complete or partial closures of businesses or activities, but additional restrictions, such as on capacity limits.

Elrich said potential restrictions that would be put back in place could be a reduction of outdoor dining from 50% to 25% capacity, or reducing the number of people allowed at a gathering.

“We’re not talking about going back to lockdown. But we are talking about going back to a more restrictive environment,” Elrich said. “Our cases now are higher than they were when the governor decided to go to stage 2 or stage 3. That’s important to note because we’ve had these numbers before.

“When we had these numbers before, the governor and his medical staff and everybody said, ‘Do not open.’ So we’re back at a point when people would not have made a decision to open four and five months ago. … So here we are, at a place that wouldn’t have gotten us to open in the first place, and we’re open. Where do you need to go to be safe again?”

With the increase of 159 cases, the county’s total rose to 24,174 — an increase of 0.66%.

No new deaths were recorded in the county on Friday, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

There have been an additional 40 “probable” deaths, meaning COVID-19 is listed on a death certificate, but it was not verified by a test.

Statewide on Friday, the number of cases increased to 134,329, which was a 0.58% increase from Thursday.

There had been 3,887 confirmed deaths statewide as of Friday morning.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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