2021 | Coronavirus

County officials worried about spread of Delta variant

Even with high vaccination rates in area, some populations are still vulnerable to virus

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County Executive Marc Elrich and county health officials say they’re concerned about the spread of strains of the coronavirus, notably the Delta variant.

According to data provided by the county’s health department, the number of cases of coronavirus variants has been slowly increasing in the community in recent weeks and months. As of July 9, there were 432 variant cases, with 374 of those being the U.K. variant and 13 being the Delta variant.

Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said in an interview, however, that data is misleading because not every positive COVID test is being sequenced to a specific variant. Because of that, he estimated that there actually is likely a similar number of U.K. and Delta variants countywide, and that those strains comprise almost all of the variant cases.

Elrich told reporters during a news briefing Wednesday he’s concerned about the Delta variant of the coronavirus, as it could lead to a rise in cases in pockets of the county where less people are vaccinated.

Gayles said in an interview he agreed with Elrich that the Delta variant is most concerning. He and Elrich both said, however, that Montgomery County is in a good position because of its high vaccination rates. According to the CDC, 69.2% of the county’s total population and 81.5% of the eligible population — those 12 years old and older — were fully vaccinated, as of Tuesday.

County health officials have recently transitioned from larger scale vaccination sites to smaller regional sites, and also hope primary care providers and community partners can help convince skeptics to get vaccinated.

“We don’t care where you get it. We just want to make sure you get it,” Gayles said. “And so we’ve continued to support all of those different efforts and numerous ways to ensure that their messages are heard, and they have the resources and supplies that are available to them, to be able to do the work to get shots into arms.”

Primary care providers are eligible to request vaccine dosages from the state, Gayles said. There were some initial “glitches” in the system when children 12 years and older were first eligible, as there were issues shipping the vaccine to providers, he said.

At Tuesday’s County Council meeting, Council Member Hans Riemer called on health officials and his colleagues to consider incentive programs to convince people get vaccinated, as the state has done. 

One-on-one conversations and going door-to-door are effective ways to get people vaccinated, but incentives are also part of the puzzle, Gayles said.

“We’re open to support those types of programs if individuals have ideas on how to execute them and look forward to, as they get proposed,” Gayles said. 

Gayles said county health officials have recognized from the start of the vaccine rollout that they “aren’t always the best messengers” when it comes to convincing some people to get the vaccine.

Setting up vaccine and testing clinics where people are, at community organizations they know and trust, is important, Gayles said. Health officials are also closely looking at data to see what areas are seeing lower vaccination rates, along with what age groups within those communities aren’t getting vaccine, he added.

“That type of information is helping in … how we move forward, how we dispatch resources, and we’re sharing that information with community organizations who have longstanding histories pre-COVID and through COVID of community outreach,” Gayles said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com