2020 | Coronavirus

Worsening COVID-19 metrics prompt county to focus on hospital, morgue space

Leaders clarify mask requirement, outline limited exceptions

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As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, Montgomery County’s health officer on Wednesday said officials are beginning to examine whether local hospitals and morgues have enough space to accommodate seriously ill or dead patients.

The strongly worded message came the day before the Thanksgiving holiday, as cases in the county spike. Even though Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and many others are encouraging residents to tamp down their plans, leaders across the country worry people still will gather in large groups and spread the virus.

Montgomery County’s new surge parallels increases across the state, which have prompted officials to tighten COVID-19 restrictions. Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, on Tuesday, the county announced it was cutting its limit on gathering sizes from 25 people to 10 and will require people to wear masks in most situations when they are outdoors.

Last week, the county’s number of new coronavirus cases reached its highest level during the pandemic, averaging more than 300 cases per day. The previous peak came the week of May 17 through 23, when the county averaged 244 cases per day, according to county data.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Gayles said if the pandemic continues to worsen, the county “could potentially run out of space in our hospitals, and ability to provide services … or take care of the people who have died due to COVID.”

“If I’m sounding bleak or concerned, it’s because we are,” Gayles said.

He reflected on the spring, when the county ordered refrigerated morgues to supplement morgue space as cases spiked and deaths mounted.

In recent weeks, Gayles has voiced concern about the increase in cases, but said there was not a corresponding increase in hospitalizations, which signals a more significant problem. But, on Wednesday, Gayles said “that is no longer the case.”

As of Tuesday, the most recent data available, the county reported that 79.7% of its hospital beds were occupied. Of those occupied beds, 18.5% were in use by COVID-19 patients. Two weeks ago, 10.7% of beds were occupied by coronavirus patients.

As of Tuesday, 85% of the county’s intensive care beds were occupied.

Gayles and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich on Wednesday doubled down on the importance of wearing masks or face coverings and not congregating to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Part of the county’s updated order this week included language that said people should wear face coverings any time that they are outdoors and are “likely to come in contact with others who are not members of their household.”

That includes passing others on the sidewalk, hiking on a trail, biking or briefly coming within six feet of other people, Elrich said on Wednesday.

He said oftentimes people have masks with them, but forget or do not put them on when they come close to others.

“It’s simpler and safer to have the masks on and it helps us get used to doing this,” Elrich said. “… If you’re not worried about your own health and safety, be concerned about the health and safety of people around you.”

County residents are encouraged to carry masks with them at all times in case they unexpectedly run into people, but are advised to wear masks whenever they leave their homes.

Gayles added that there are exceptions. For example, if someone is alone in their backyard, they likely don’t need to wear a face covering, he said.

In a press release Wednesday, the county outlined additional guidance for wearing face coverings.

The press release said face coverings must be worn in businesses, office buildings and other establishments open to the public.

Exceptions include when people are:

• eating or drinking
• receiving dental care or other treatments related to the face, mouth or head
• swimming or during other activities in which a mask would be considered a safety risk
• younger than 18 and participating in “vigorous sports”
• unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition or disability
• alone in an office or vehicle.

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