Local health officials are making “contingency plans” that could include reinstating restrictions if COVID-19 rates continue to increase.
During a weekly call with reporters on Wednesday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said he has directed Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Earl Stoddard and the county’s Department of Health to create a contingency plan “and prepare us for next steps” should cases surge.
“We cannot go into something different, then suddenly be asking ourselves what we might do,” Elrich said. “We need to think in advance and plan in advance, so if we decide we have to do something different, it can be implemented quickly. The more quickly we operate, the more quickly we can get this under control if it looks like we need to take that kind of action.”
He did not give specific examples of what data might trigger new restrictions.
On Wednesday, Gayles said that while Montgomery County has seen an increase in cases the past few weeks, there has not seen a comparable increase in hospitalizations and deaths.
But, he cautioned, in past surges of cases, the uptick in hospitalizations lagged behind. If that happens again, the county could reinstate a mask requirement in public spaces, he said.
“So, we don’t want to be caught in a situation where we’re waiting for it to happen when we know that there are potential actions that can be put into place to curb those,” Gayles said. “ … We are looking at what other jurisdictions have done across the country and some of those actions could potentially include reinstating a face-covering requirement, particularly in public settings. Again, this is by no means committing to any of those, but we just want to be very transparent with our residents.”
After a notable improvement in COVID-19 metrics a month ago, cases have again begun to tick upward, as the Delta variant has spread.
In June, the county averaged about eight new cases of COVID-19 each day and recorded 18 deaths. Through the first three weeks of July, the county has averaged about 19 new cases each day, including four days with more than 30 cases apiece.
Five COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the county in July.
The county’s case rate per 100,000 people and test positivity rate — key measures used to track the severity of the virus’ spread — remain low. The case rate as of Wednesday afternoon was 2.9, and the percentage of tests returning a positive result was 1%.
On Wednesday, Gayles said nearly all of the new cases are among unvaccinated people, but there also is “more evidence” of “breakthrough” cases among people who have been vaccinated. He said breakthrough cases are generally not severe.
Health officials across the country have raised concerns, however, about a variant of the virus, commonly called the Delta variant, which is reportedly more contagious. The World Health Organization has recommended that everyone continue to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The Maryland Department of Health sequences about 45% of COVID-19 tests across the state for the Delta variant. About 40% of those that are analyzed are confirmed to be the Delta variant, according to Maryland Department of Health data.
On Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released updated guidance for schools, saying everyone should wear a face covering, regardless of their vaccination status.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidance that says everyone older than 2 who has not been vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear a face covering.
MCPS is expected to release information about its mask requirements for the fall semester during a meeting on Tuesday. Gayles recently told Bethesda Beat he agrees with the CDC guidance.
Montgomery County was among the last in the state to lift its COVID-19 restrictions, which were often stricter than statewide requirements.
Gayles and other county leaders have cited the restrictions as the reason the county kept the virus at a manageable level for much of the past 17 months.
Now, county officials are focused on vaccines.
As of Wednesday, about 68.5% of Montgomery County residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to county data. About 62.6% were fully vaccinated. Those figures are for the entire population, including children younger than 12 who are not eligible for a shot.
Elrich, Stoddard and Gayles each urged people who have not yet been vaccinated to get a shot to avoid serious illness and death from COVID-19.
“We are so close, and our numbers are so high that we could really put a damper on this if we can continue to make progress,” Elrich said.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org