2020 | Coronavirus

County doesn’t know when it will receive more coronavirus tests, health officer says

Surge of cases expected over next several weeks

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Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles pictured at a press conference on March 12. Gayles gave the County Council an update Tuesday on the efforts to prepare for an expected surge of cases in the next several weeks.

Photo by Briana Adhikusuma

Montgomery County health officials and local hospitals have been preparing for a potential coronavirus surge for weeks as the number of confirmed cases grows during the pandemic.

But testing availability is still lacking and the county doesn’t know when it will receive any test kits from the state, according to Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer. Gov. Larry Hogan and other governors have said they are still waiting on the federal government to provide the tests their states need.

During a County Council meeting on Tuesday, Gayles gave an update on county efforts to handle the pandemic.

“Not much has changed in that window,” he said. “Although, we are having more talks with the state to talk about how we can potentially stand up some mobile testing sites within the county — potentially utilizing the [vehicle emission inspection] sites we have or identifying other sites that we’ve already discussed utilizing once we get increased capacity.”

On Friday, MedStar began drive-thru testing at the Pauline Betz Addie Tennis Center at 7801 Democracy Blvd. in Bethesda. It is available for people who have gotten an order from a MedStar doctor to be tested.

Kelly Goodman, NP & Associates in Bethesda also has done drive-thru testing on certain days on Sangamore Road at the Safeway grocery story and at the Washington Waldorf School.

For the last month, the county has been looking at setting up its own mobile testing site that wouldn’t rely on the state. It’s not known how many tests the state has, he said.

“Our goal is to create something that can stand up multiple times and not just be a one-time opportunity,” Gayles said. “So that’s why we’re working really diligently to be able to secure enough test kits so that we can provide that service.”

The health department is working to get some of the tests that have been shared with the state, as well as exploring other alternatives with private labs to increase testing capability.

Locally, two private labs — Quest and LabCorp — have been doing testing.

Gayles said the county is continuing to partner with George Washington University to prepare a model to help project when a surge could potentially happen and keep track of patient demographics.

There’s been an uptick in people who have been hospitalized in the county when they contract coronavirus. Early on, it was around 15% of patients. It’s increased to 25% now, Gayles said.

A surge is expected over the next several weeks or so.

“I think the next two weeks are going to be important and instrumental in when that peak happens,” he said.

As of Tuesday morning, Montgomery County had recorded 388 coronavirus disease cases, up 47 from the previous day.

Because lab reports only include the name, age, gender and addresses the county is limited in the information it receives, he said. The county has released information about patients’ ages and gender.

Gayles said he hopes that by using the model, the county can identify factors that might influence transmission.

The testing protocol has not changed and is not open to everyone yet.

“Testing is not at the point where we’re testing on demand,” Gayles said.

The county is also working with hospitals to maximize their current bed space and availability.

Hospitals in the county have about 1,500 hospital beds, but need 500 more.

Conversations have included the possibility of constructing “mobile hospitals,” Gayles said.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said there isn’t currently a surge in hospital admissions, but it is expected “very soon.”

The number of county registrants in the volunteer Maryland Responds Medical Reserve Corps has increased to 1,700. Another 101 practitioners, nurses and other volunteers are being vetted through the credential system.

Stoddard said he hopes the number of volunteers increases to 2,000 or more.

Other than medical volunteers, some community members have volunteered where help is needed. That could include driving health care employees to and from work.

Stoddard said local businesses and vendors have donated or asked about selling supplies to the county.

Every week, the county gets 300 gallons of hand sanitizer made by a local distillery. It is used within county departments and local nonprofits.

County staff members have asked other businesses if they can make masks, including how many and how often those would be available, Stoddard said.

As far as Hogan’s stay-at-home order on Monday, Stoddard wanted to clear up some confusion in the community.

Part of that confusion may have been added by the county not being informed ahead of time of Hogan’s plans to make the order, he said, which didn’t allow the county to have information immediately ready for an alert.

“Because we didn’t have any notice on this …. we were left completely flatfooted to one, produce language that was both understandable, but also accurate, based on what we knew the governor was going to enforce or not,” he said.

Stoddard said police officers will not make random traffic stops to ask drivers where they are headed. If a police officer pulls over a driver for a different reason, the officer may ask if the driver is out for an essential reason, he said.

The state’s recommendation to employers of essential businesses is to provide each employee with a letter that includes the employee’s name and address, the business’ name and address, the nature of the employee’s work and why it’s essential, and contact information for the employer.

Hospital, county and city badges work in lieu of a letter, Stoddard said.

Enforcement will be focused on gatherings of more than 10 people and for people who have habitually violated the order.

“Everything that law enforcement has done in the county has been voluntary compliance,” Stoddard said. “I expect that to mostly continue. If people aren’t aware of the order, they’re not going to randomly start slapping fines and incarcerating people.”

Because some people are still gathering in large groups at parks and letting their children play on the playground equipment, Stoddard said, park officials are looking into fencing to block off playgrounds or picnic shelters.

If people continue to gather in large groups at the parks, the state might shut down parks altogether, he said.

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