Montgomery County Council members want Marc Elrich to form a better testing strategy for COVID-19

Council members give ultimatum to Elrich to form better COVID-19 testing strategy

Executive, health officer push back, say current plan has been effective

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This article was updated at 2:34 p.m. on July 9, 2020, to include additional comments from County Executive Marc Elrich.

Two Montgomery County Council members have urged County Executive Marc Elrich to create a better plan for COVID-19 testing by the end of this week — or pledged to have the council create one on its own.

The county is falling well short on COVID-19 testing, Council Members Hans Riemer and Gabe Albornoz wrote Tuesday in a letter to Elrich, urging improvement.

They said they want Elrich to present a draft of a written COVID-19 testing strategy indicating a public health policy and a plan to help increase testing sites and communication about testing to the community.

The council could adopt it as the Board of Health in late July, they said.

“We must drive more testing and at scale,” Riemer and Albornoz wrote. “That comes from making testing highly accessible and then driving a message to the community about getting tested, as well as conducting an effective tracing operation.”

If Elrich does not have a written policy and plan by Sunday, the council will pass its own requirements as a Board of Health “to take effect on July 19, for collecting low-risk test samples at county fire stations,” according to the letter.

In an email Wednesday night, Riemer told Bethesda Beat that he is already starting to draft the health regulation to lay out a testing strategy for walk-up test sites at the fire stations.

“I’m thinking we may need to just enact it on Tuesday, not take the extra week,” he wrote. “It’s going to be very simple, calling for fire stations to be testing sites and to test anyone meeting the latest CDC testing guidance.”

Elrich told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the department has a testing strategy and the council will get it.

The county entered its second phase of reopening on June 19. During a media briefing on Wednesday, Elrich said the county is “going to be staying in Phase 2.” He would not elaborate on when it could advance to Phase 3, which would allow a further loosening of restrictions.

“Everything we see indicates that it’s harder to control this than people realize. … We’re already seeing states roll back,” he said. “We’re trying to keep ourselves on a different trend.”

Some states and the U.S. as a whole have been setting records in recent days for the number of COVID-19 cases.

Officials are worried about people bringing in cases from outside the county and state, Elrich said.

“We are going to stay where we are for the time being,” he said. “Hopefully, our numbers will continue to come down.”

Montgomery County’s daily percentage increase in COVID-19 cases was in double digits in early April, then dropped to single digits by the middle of the month. It was under 5% for much of May and mostly under 1% since mid-June.

Of the $183 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, more than $20 million has been budgeted for testing programs. Only $1 million has been spent, though, the council members said.

“We must identify our staff capacity in this plan and match resources to conduct the program,” they wrote.

Elrich and Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said Wednesday that the county has had a testing strategy that’s been effective.

“We didn’t get to 120,000 tests without having a plan,” Elrich said. “We’ve tested more than anybody else in the state and I think anybody else in the region.”

Gayles said county officials have strategies in place for testing, including three testing sites, pop-up testing sites, mobile testing, and a health phone line for people who needed to get a medical recommendation for a test.

“All of those things do represent a strategy — a very careful, coordinated strategy that has been advised by epidemiology and data,” he said. “Again, we recognize that we still have significant [ways] to go and work to do.”

Gayles said the team working on the strategy is “busting their behinds” to increase partnerships for pop-up testing, finding new venues for testing sites, and other efforts.

“The notion that we don’t have a strategy is absolutely false,” he said.

As of Wednesday, the county had tested 10% of its population.

Elrich said the county has accomplished a lot of testing without the same support the state gave to Prince George’s County with a walk-in testing site.

“That’s something the state did not do for Montgomery County despite our [case] numbers,” he said.

Riemer and Albornoz recommended using the 37 fire station sites in the county as 12-hour walk-up testing sites. They suggested that the sites be divided into symptomatic or asymptomatic sites and that they could be used for people with no or very mild symptoms.

“Having 37 sites operating 12 hours per day (over 2,000 hours per week) would be a striking contrast to our current County government testing operation, which has three sites operating for a total of 20 hours per week,” they wrote, adding that it would bring greater awareness to testing.

Riemer and Albornoz said they heard from residents who are confused about what guidance the county is providing for who should get tested and where they can get tested.

Other council members said at Tuesday’s council meeting that they have heard confusion from the community, as well, regarding testing sites and accessibility.

Elrich said part of that confusion “starts with the state.”

“The guidance from the state, until almost a week ago … is that you only test people who were symptomatic,” he said, adding that the county has already been testing asymptomatic people.

A large part of the challenge of getting the word out about testing sites and regulations is that many people don’t use social media, Elrich said, which means the county has to look for ways to get into communities on the ground.

“This is really challenging, but we continue to look for ways to deepen our reach into the communities and we intend to do that,” he said. “We’re not resting on the testing that we’ve done now — either the rate or the quantity of testing. The goal is to ramp up the rate and bring in more partners and ramp up the quantity.”

To get tested

Montgomery County currently offers testing to residents who think they might have been exposed to COVID-19 or need testing to meet work requirements.

Appointments must be made for a test, but it’s free and doesn’t require identification or a doctor’s order. To make an appointment, call the Testing Helpline at 240-777-1755 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. any day.

The testing sites in the county include:
• Parking garage behind the Regal Theaters in Germantown (20010 Century Blvd.): Mondays between 8 a.m. and noon.
• Montgomery County Parking Garage #45 in Wheaton (11304 Amherst Ave.): Wednesdays and Fridays between 8 a.m. and noon
• Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program (VEIP) site in White Oak (2121 Industrial Parkway): Tuesdays and Thursdays between 8 a.m. and noon

More testing sites can be found here.

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

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