2020 | Coronavirus

Montgomery County officials expand on decision to not begin reopening yet

Hospitals ‘can’t withstand an uptick’ in COVID-19 cases, Elrich says

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Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles speaks during a news conference on Thursday afternoon in Rockville while County Executive Marc Elrich looks on.

Photo by Caitlynn Peetz

The majority of Montgomery County hospitals have reached their maximum capacity of intensive care patients due to the coronavirus pandemic, local officials said Thursday in explaining why the county is not ready for a limited reopening with other parts of the state.

ICU capacity was one of several factors officials say they considered when deciding to not begin the first phase of reopening.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Wednesday that a first phase of reopening would start Friday at 5 p.m., when he lifts a “stay at home” order.

Hogan said he would allow some businesses — like retail stores, pet groomers, salons and barbers — to reopen. Religious congregations can again hold services, albeit at limited capacity and with a “strong encouragement” to hold services outdoors.

Although Maryland is meeting benchmarks that allow the state to start loosening restrictions, jurisdictions struggling more with COVID-19 cases may stick with tighter restrictions, Hogan said Wednesday.

The same day, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the county is not ready to begin reopening.

During a news conference on Thursday afternoon, Elrich and Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles elaborated on their position that the county is not ready for the “phase one” reopening on Friday.

Four of the six hospitals in the county were at capacity for their intensive care beds as of Wednesday, Elrich said, and could not handle an increase in cases.

“If there’s an uptick in cases, our hospitals can’t withstand an uptick,” Elrich said. “… We will change the rules as soon as the science says we can change the rules. When that happens, we will start down the road of reopening things.”

Along with a decline in the number of patients hospitalized and in intensive care, Elrich and Gayles said they are looking for a two-week decrease in the number of daily deaths, the number of patients going to the doctor or emergency room with COVID-19 symptoms and the number of new cases, even as testing increases.

Many of the data points have plateaued, Elrich said, meaning new numbers remain about the same each day, but have not yet begun to decrease.

The county’s hospitalization rate for coronavirus patients is about 19%, and about 3% of residents have been tested, Gayles said. The goal is to have the capacity to test about 5% of the county’s population — 55,000 people — each month and see the percentage of those patients who test positive decrease. Currently, the tests for about a quarter of the people who are tested in Montgomery County come back positive.

On Thursday, Elrich said he will issue a countywide stay-at-home executive order when the state order expires and that “life in Montgomery County will continue as it was because the circumstances in Montgomery County … have not changed enough in order to make reopening safe.” He did not say when the stay-at-home order will end.

“This not being in a normal state is as hard for me as it is for anyone else, with the exception that I still have a job,” Elrich said. “… I would like to go to a restaurant and sit down. I would like to go to a movie. I would like to go to a concert. There are lots of things I’d like to do, but I wouldn’t put what I’d like to do above the welfare of the people in this county.”

Elrich said he feels that Hogan is moving too quickly in reopening the rest of the state. He pointed to new data released Thursday morning that showed Maryland recorded more than 1,000 new confirmed cases of the virus and more than 1,500 people were hospitalized.

Additionally, Elrich said he worries about local residents traveling to other areas of the state that reopen quicker, then transmitting the virus.

“I think he went farther than he probably should have right now,” Elrich said of the governor. “I think he should have waited at least until cases were on a downward turn for some period of time, so you knew you had more control over the virus than we do right now.”

During a news conference on Wednesday evening, Hogan reassured “anyone concerned we’re moving too quickly … that each and every decision we make is both fact based and science based and is made only after extensive consultation with our expert coronavirus recovery team.”

Under the new “safer at home” public advisory that starts statewide on Friday, more businesses and facilities can reopen, as long as social distancing best practices are used, including spreading out and avoiding crowds.

Marylanders are encouraged to stay home as much as possible, particularly if they are older or more vulnerable to getting sick. They also are urged to wear face coverings while they are in indoor public areas, at retail stories or on public transportation.

The reopening is part of a phased-in approach to reviving Maryland’s economy and way of life after several weeks of restrictions to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

As of Thursday morning, Maryland had reported 35,903 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,748 people had died from the virus.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com