Fewer people getting COVID-19 tests; county wants to increase capacity

Fewer people getting COVID-19 tests; county wants to increase capacity

Officials explore rapid testing, other options

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Montgomery County has had a slight surge of COVID-19 cases in the past week, even as fewer people get tested for the virus.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said during a media briefing on Wednesday that confirmed cases have been slightly increasing from the county’s previous plateau.

There have been 21,467 known coronavirus cases in the county and 795 confirmed deaths from the virus, as of Wednesday morning.

Test positivity has been between 2.9% and 3.3% over the last couple of weeks.

Since the state began Phase 3 and Labor Day, the county — which is still in Phase 2 — has had four days with more than or close to 100 new confirmed cases.

According to the county’s REDCap (Research Electronic Data Capture) system — which tracks cases on the day tests were taken instead of results reported — cases have been higher than usual, Gayles said.

On Sept. 8, there were 121 new confirmed cases recorded, followed by 119 cases the next day. In the two days after, 98 and 101 cases were reported.

The county added 107 cases on Thursday morning.

“The numbers have been increasing in our jurisdiction and we’re continuing to follow those trends,” Gayles said. “At the same time, we have not seen to date a comparable increase in hospital utilization or emergency room utilization. Our COVID-related fatalities have remained low.”

Gayles attributed the higher case numbers to people becoming more relaxed with wearing face coverings and physical distancing, particularly with large and family gatherings.

He said the rise in cases could also be because people were traveling for the Labor Day holiday.

“It does create some challenges when folks are able to travel to different places where there are less restrictions in place and they may be coming into contact with the virus in those settings and potentially bringing it back to another jurisdiction,” he said.

There is also testing fatigue, he said.

“I don’t think it’s tied to access, per se, because we do have an extensive network of testing opportunities in the county,” he said He added that it could also be influenced by confusing guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding testing asymptomatic individuals.

The county’s testing capacity has exceeded demand many days, he said.

The county can test more than 1,000 people in a day at the Silver Spring Civic Center, but recently, 700 testing slots were open and only 400 people came in to get a test.

“We are doubling down on making sure we’re reaching out to the community to remind them that we have tests available,” Gayles said.

The county signed a contract on Monday with CIAN Diagnostics in Frederick to continue providing testing.

The lab has been working with the county the last few weeks through the testing that was provided by the state when the county terminated its contract on Aug. 18 with Rockville lab AdvaGenix.

The county terminated the AdvaGenix contract after a joint state and federal investigation raised concerns about the lab’s testing and processing protocols. LINK

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said that because the county has already been working with CIAN, it won’t need to switch over testing or pause as the state-supported testing fades out.

“It’s a significant development for us. … We’ve been ramping up our testing operations. We’re going to continue to do that.” he said.

The turnaround for test results with CIAN has been about 48 hours.

Gayles told the County Council on Tuesday that officials have been speaking with at least four other laboratories about testing, as well.

The state recently acquired 250,000 rapid tests. Elrich said he wasn’t sure how many the county would receive.

“We do know that their focus is going to be on nursing homes and other critical personnel. They’re not meant for general consumption at this point,” he said. “But the county is looking at companies that would bring these tests online in hopes that we’ll also be announcing progress in bringing those tests to the county. We believe the more testing we do, the safer we can make people and the quicker we can get control on things.”

Elrich said the county still has far more new cases than officials would like to see.

“You don’t know everybody who’s sick. It’s possible to be positive and spreading the virus and not showing any signs of it,” he said. “That is one of the dangers. That’s one of the things that allowed this virus to spread so quickly.”

Elrich said the county might allow some restaurants to serve alcohol after 10 p.m. Restaurant owners pushed back on that restriction, which began on Aug. 5. LINK

“We’re working to see if there is a way to do this. We’re looking at the potential of some kind of opt-in where there would be certain restrictions and enforcement that they would have to agree to follow,” he said.

“And I want to emphasize ‘have to agree to follow.’ This doesn’t work if we say you can open up and we go in there and find people crowded around bars, moving tables around to be close to each other, standing up in the middle of the bar in the restaurant talking to each other. If it’s going to be done, it’s got to be done safely.”

In addition, outdoor performances will be allowed, but must follow strict requirements, including the 50-person gathering limit. The cast and crew might be counted separately.

The audience must be physically distanced and the venue must submit a letter of approval for performances, including a seating chart that shows distancing measures.

Before Montgomery County goes into Phase 3 of its reopening, Gayles said he’d like to see a moderate level of transmission, with up to 34 cases a day, he said, or better yet, zero to low transmission , with up to 10 cases a day.

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

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