County in midst of new coronavirus surge, Executive Marc Elrich says

UPDATED: County in midst of new COVID-19 surge, Elrich says

More than 100 new cases reported in county for 16 of last 21 days

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This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 29, 2020, to include the latest figures on COVID-19 cases in the county and the state.

Montgomery County’s recent rise in number of COVID-19 cases is not an anomaly — it’s a surge, County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday.

“We’re not headed in a good direction,” he said during a media briefing. “We’re at levels of the virus that if this had been May or June, and we were making decisions about what to open, we would not open. We got below these thresholds before we made decisions to open things up again.”

The county’s rate of cases per 100,000 people is now 11.9 — up from last week, when it was 10.4. It’s the highest rate of cases per 100,000 in the county since June 15.

“That number is troubling because we have seen continued days where we’re having multiple days reporting cases over 100 ,” Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said Wednesday at the briefing.

At its lowest, the county has had 6 cases per 100,000. The county’s positivity rate is at 3.1%.

On Thursday morning, the number of COVID-19 cases in the county increased by 130 — or 0.5% — since Wednesday morning. The county now has had 25,692 cases.

The daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the county was in double digits for much of September, but has been in triple digits for 16 of the last 21 days, including nine in a row.

The Maryland Department of Health on Thursday reported two additional confirmed deaths from the virus in the county. The county’s death toll is at 832.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said Wednesday that the county has increased its testing and, in that context, officials expect for test positivity numbers to go down.

The test positivity was at 3.1% on Sept. 18. It continued to drop to 2.4% on Oct. 17, then began slowly increasing again.

“If anything, it’s gone up slightly ,” Stoddard said. “In spite of the increased testing, we’re finding not just more cases, but also seeing an increase in positivity, which is not the trend direction that you would either expect from increased testing, but it’s also further evidence that we’re seeing an increase or a surge in cases.”

Stoddard said the state is also seeing an uptick in hospitalizations.

On Thursday morning, the number of COVID-19 cases in Maryland increased by 962 — or 0.7% — overnight. It was the highest daily case increase for the state since Sept. 12, when it also was 0.7%.

There have been 3,980 confirmed deaths from the virus in the state.

Gayles said Wednesday that officials hoped that the increasing numbers was a brief anomaly, but trends suggest that there is an increase of cases not only in the county, but also the region and state.

“We are seeing a sustained increase in cases, which gives us pause and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the possibility of needing to implement tighter restrictions on some of our activities,” he said.

The county is currently in Phase 2 of its reopening, which allows businesses, museums, religious facilities and sports programs to operate within certain guidelines. Under Phase 2, amusement parks, theaters, escape rooms, hookah bars, libraries, and other businesses with high-risk activities are not allowed to reopen. LINK to list

On Sept. 4, the state advanced to Phase 3, which loosens the restrictions on what may be open. Officials in county could decide on their own when to advance to each phase.

Montgomery County is not considering closing any businesses unless there is clear evidence from contact tracing that points to a particular place, activity or source causing an increase in cases, Gayles said.

Contact tracing data for the county currently show that the activities causing the most cases are social gatherings, family gatherings, houses of worship, indoor dining and employment outside residents’ homes.

“Until there are actual treatments that are readily available and a vaccine which is widely available, we’re going to have to deal with this in the best way we can,” Elrich said. “The only way we can deal with this is through our own actions. I continue to encourage people to do the right thing, even if you’re tired of it.”

That includes physically distancing from others, washing hands frequently and wearing a mask, he said.

Elrich said the county is in a “horrible” dilemma of increasing risk to human life or increasing risk of business failures.

“We shouldn’t be in this dilemma. We didn’t have to be in this dilemma,” he said. “But we’re in this dilemma and we’re doing everything we can to manage it and to minimize the amount of damage it’s done to our community. It’s certainly tested our tolerance.”

Gayles said medical professionals and scientists have continued to be “questioned and attacked in different ways,” including accusations of physicians trying to overdiagnose patients with COVID-19 or overinflating COVID-19 deaths because people had underlying conditions.

These attacks undermine the officials’ ability to help residents understand what’s safe and isn’t, as well as put in practices that mitigate transmission, he said.

“People are putting themselves at risk and working diligently to come up with strategies to keep our residents safe,” he said. “I know it’s been a long haul … but we continue to ask for your patience and your adherence to all the advice we put out. Because our motivation is to keep you safe.”

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

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