2021 | Coronavirus

Mask wearing, capacity limits could return if COVID-19 situation worsens

Officials working on contingency plan that Elrich requested

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County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles addresses reporters during a news briefing on Wednesday.

Screenshot from YouTube

As health officials work to limit the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, they’re keeping all options open on possible new restrictions.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, and Earl Stoddard, an acting assistant chief administrative officer, said Wednesday that they didn’t want to enact any new restrictions, especially given the county’s high rate of vaccinations. 

But there are “a host of different tools in the toolkit” that officials could use if coronavirus metrics like cases and hospitalizations get worse, Gayles said.

Those range from “potentially reimplementing the face covering, particularly in indoor settings, to some of the more significant measures if the numbers worsen even more, including potential capacity limits or reimplementation of physical distancing measures,” Gayles said.

All of those ideas are part of a contingency plan requested by County Executive Marc Elrich. 

It’s unclear what levels the county would need to hit before some measures would be put back into place.

On Wednesday, the county’s health department reported a seven-day average of 4.78 new cases per 100,000 residents. It also reported one new COVID-19 death since Tuesday, bringing the county’s overall death toll to 1,582. 

Montgomery County was seeing fewer than 10 new cases per day for much of June. For the last two weeks, the daily average has been about 40.

As of July 22, the most recent data available, 1.1% of all hospital beds countywide were occupied with COVID-19 patients, health department data show. Overall, 76.2% of all beds were being used countywide as of that date.

Stoddard emphasized that he, Gayles, Elrich and the County Council don’t want to reimplement some restrictions, but they will follow the science and health guidance in the coming weeks.

“We don’t want to wait until things are really bad, and then have to put in draconian measures very quickly,” Stoddard said. “We’re trying to get people to get vaccinated, be more cautious, get tested, and maybe we can avoid having to do all those things.”

Gayles and Stoddard said a factor helping Montgomery County is high vaccination rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 77.5% of the county’s population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 70.6% is fully vaccinated, as of Wednesday. 

Some elected leaders, including Council President Tom Hucker, said they’re open to bringing back restrictions, but only for unvaccinated individuals.

Gayles said private businesses can impose restrictions, but they’re hard to enforce since there is no uniform state or federal standard, outside of someone showing their vaccination card or other proof.

He and Stoddard said county-owned facilities would have an easier time enforcing those rules. But Stoddard there are other logistical problems, including staffing to enforce restrictions and the fact many county buildings have multiple entry points, Stoddard said.

“We’re trying to think about this a little bit differently than we have in the past, given the availability of the vaccine, as we consider some of these measures,” Stoddard said.

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