More COVID-19 testing is expected for Montgomery County residents as officials work on a new strategy to increase accessibility and the number of sites.
The County Council, acting as the Board of Health, on Tuesday unanimously approved a new coronavirus testing strategy. County Executive Marc Elrich will be required to implement it immediately.
The plan calls for “free, no appointment, no referral, walk-up testing.” There also will be additional pop-up testing sites and increased communication with residents about their options.
The strategy, proposed by Council Members Hans Riemer and Gabe Albornoz, was formed after council members criticized how Elrich has handled testing and response to disproportionately affected minority communities. Two weeks ago, they gave Elrich an ultimatum — which Elrich met — to provide a better testing plan and share it with the council.
But Elrich has defended the county’s plan and said the county has been a leader in the amount of testing it has conducted compared to the rest of the state.
The council’s original proposal called for at least 35 additional testing sites at fire stations, libraries and churches.
Elrich proposed nine amendments to the regulation — most included factual corrections or clarifications.
One amendment was to remove the requirement to set up the additional 35 testing sites and replace it with a requirement to set up the number of test sites needed to administer at least 20,000 tests each week by September and 30,000 tests each week by October.
Another amendment included clarifying that the county has spent $4 million of the $20 million designated for testing, not $1 million as the original regulation listed when it was drafted.
Riemer said the council was not informed about the additional $3 million in spending until Tuesday. Council Member Andrew Friedson said he’d like a detailed analysis of the spending for testing.
The virus isn’t disappearing soon and case surges in other areas could make their way into the county, Riemer said.
“We have been pushing for an expanded testing and tracing strategy for months. In May, the executive’s team indicated it was prepared to provide as many as 20,000 tests per week through county programs,” he said. “We still haven’t gotten there — not by a long shot due to a lack of logistical organization.”
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, has attributed the delay in increasing testing capacity to technological problems with launching testing platforms or labs that have a backlog of tests to process.
“We need to be prepared this time. We can keep our economy open,” Riemer said. “We can suppress this virus enough even to reopen our schools if we have testing, tracing and isolating programs. … on full tilt.”
Albornoz said the plan Elrich sent to the council was an “impressive document” and formalizing it on paper ensured transparency with the public.
“We have been asking every briefing what the executive branch needs to be able to stand up testing and stand up contact tracing,” Albornoz said. “That was the first time I’ve seen specific to testing, at least in writing, that there was a feeling we needed more resources.”
The council’s regulation also requires the health department to provide a testing report to the public every week. It would show how many tests have been administered at testing sites and how long it takes to receive results back from public and private sites.
It also requires Elrich to submit a more detailed plan on testing and contact tracing for schools, vulnerable communities and certain workers by July 28.
Council Member Nancy Navarro said the proposed strategy captured many of the requests the council has made since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Having these types of models in place and these types of regulations will serve us well into the future,” she said.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.