2020 | Coronavirus

COVID-19 hospitalizations surging across the county

Further restrictions to limit spread in county or region could be on horizon

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles pictured at a press conference on March 12.

File photo

COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging across Montgomery County as part of a second wave of cases.

Emergency rooms visits in the county have increased. The number of COVID-19 cases is rising in each age group.

As of Tuesday morning, 17.7% of the county’s hospital beds were filled with patients with the coronavirus — a metric indicating a “very high risk of transmission” or spread, according to the county’s data dashboard, which tracks certain conditions of the pandemic.

The rate was 4.6% on Oct. 3 and 5.7% on Oct. 26, then reached 19.0% on Monday. Before then, the last time the level was that high was in early June.

The highest level the county has seen during the pandemic was 38.9% on May 7.

About 61% of the hospitals’ ICU beds were in use as of Tuesday and around 74% of the total hospital beds in the county are occupied with patients — both indicating “low risk of transmission” or spread, according to the dashboard.

Five of the six intensive care units in hospitals across Montgomery County have entered the “red zone” for patient requirements and services, as of Monday, according to Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer. He did not define “red zone.” Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said she would find out a definition.

Another significant increase in cases is expected following Thanksgiving gatherings this past Thursday and weekend — even though families were advised to stay home instead of visiting relatives in other households.

“We will continue to explore next-level restrictions,” Gayles told the County Council at a briefing on Tuesday. “That’s something we’ve discussed at length, anticipating that this could happen.”

On Tuesday, the county reported its second-largest daily case increase — 505 cases — since the beginning of the pandemic in March. The county has had a total of 33,905 known cases and 918 confirmed deaths from the virus.

County Executive Marc Elrich has been meeting with other county executives across the state for possible potential restrictions in unison, so there is some “common ground,” Gayles said.

Officials were waiting to hear if Gov. Larry Hogan would announce further restrictions during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

“Based upon that, I’m pretty sure a number of jurisdictions may take further action pending what he announces,” Gayles said. “I will put this in no uncertain terms that I am extremely concerned. … All of the indicators that I have seen so far and our team has seen so far lead us to believe that we will see a significant increase in cases, significant increase in our hospital utilization, and in the absence of further restrictions, our models predict that we will run out of capacity in our hospitals regardless of our best efforts to address that.”

Hogan did not announce new restrictions on Tuesday, but talked at length about new measures to increase staffing at hospitals across the state.

Hogan urged colleges and universities to offer academic credit to medical students who serve during the pandemic, and allow health care students in their final semester to graduate early.

The governor also asked counties to enlist “non-deployed” school nurses, health services staff members and other county employees to help staff state testing and vaccination sites. He said hospitals and nursing homes should allow unlicensed people to perform “less critical tasks” to free up nurses for more complex tasks.

Every hospital in Maryland is required to submit a “surge plan” to the state by Dec. 8, outlining strategies to expand hospital bed capacity.

If Maryland has 8,000 or more people hospitalized with the coronavirus, all hospitals will be required to expand their staffed bed capacity by 10% within one week, Hogan said.

As of Tuesday, 6,816 state residents were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Other COVID-19 topics that county officials discussed on Tuesday included:

• A coronavirus vaccine, which is expected to be available as early as late December, will be distributed to first responders, health care workers, essential workers, and residents with increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, such as those with underlying medical conditions and people at least 65 years old.

But the first batch of doses is only expected to have about 6 million available to the entire country, Gayles said, and the county doesn’t know how many doses will be made available to Maryland for distribution.

All of the county’s nursing homes have already signed up for a state program that will use pharmacies to distribute the vaccines in the facilities once they are available.

• The state recorded its first COVID-19-related death for someone younger than 9. Dr. Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said county officials don’t know yet if the child was from Montgomery County.

“Children are not immune from this. They can get it,” Gayles said. “Unfortunately, they can have COVID-related fatalities. Again, one of the other things to underscore that we don’t want to dismiss is we are still developing a full understanding of what the long term consequences and side effects of having COVID are. We don’t know the full spectrum of that.”

During his press conference, Hogan became emotional as he announced that the child who died was a 1-year-old boy. He did not say where the child lived or disclose any more information about him.

• Council Member Andrew Friedson raised concerns about testing result delays. He noted that he recently took a test and didn’t receive the results back until seven days later.

“A test that takes seven to 10 days is really worthless in terms of being able to control the spread,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to convince asymptomatic individuals to quarantine if test results take too long to come back and people don’t have any symptoms.

Gayles said the problem of test result delays is being experienced across the country. With the increased demand for testing, the labs processing the tests have had higher workloads.

Gayles said officials are looking into increasing the number of labs that are processing its tests. At least one of the contracted labs has expanded the number of employees to meet the increased demand.

Those who have positive test results are prioritized first in receiving a notification about their results.

Staff writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story.

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