2021 | Government

UPDATED: Indoor mask mandate to kick in after 7 days of ‘substantial transmission’

Board of Health decision delays potential reinstatement that had been slated for Wednesday

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This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 2, 2021, to include more comments from county residents and county officials. 

County Council members, acting as the Board of Health, unanimously approved changes to the county’s indoor mask mandate regulation Tuesday, delaying it from being reinstated as soon as Wednesday.

Previously, the Board of Health order had stated that if the county had seen one day of “substantial transmission,” per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the indoor mask mandate would be reinstated. The amended order now sets that requirement at seven straight days of substantial transmission, delaying a possible reinstatement until next week.

Per CDC guidelines, “substantial transmission” is 50 to 99.99 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period. The mask mandate was lifted at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 28, after the county saw seven straight days of “moderate transmission,” per CDC guidelines and the Board of Health order.

“Moderate transmission” is defined as 10 to 49.99 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period.

An increase in cases caused the county to enter substantial transmission on Oct. 30, county officials said. That led to county officials drafting the amended order. 

Council members and health officials said that if the county sees seven straight days of substantial transmission, the indoor mask mandate would be reinstated at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 9, because CDC data lags behind state and local data, and businesses need a “grace period” to adjust to the mandate coming back. 

Before the council vote on Thursday of last week, multiple residents testified in a public hearing that they agreed with the amended order and called on council members and health officials to not rely solely on case rates when determining indoor mask mandates.

Margery Smelkinson, an infectious disease scientist and microscopist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged the County Council to look at hospitalizations and not case rates when considering future indoor mask mandates.

“This is not throwing caution to the wind,” Smelkinson said. “Rather, I urge you, at a minimum, to adopt a better metric for making decisions about COVID mitigation. A low hospitalization rate means this disease has been well-managed, and is low-risk to county residents.”

Paul Meyer, a county resident and father of a 2-year-old child, said he was against the mask mandate being reinstated. He said high vaccination rates countywide and the fact that younger children could suffer from having to wear masks and see their teachers and child care providers wear masks, mean the mandate should be lifted.

“We can’t pretend that there aren’t any harms to children from long-term mask wearing when the conditions don’t warrant it,” Meyer said. “These are children who are still learning how to speak, and they’re not able to see their teachers or classmates’ mouths.”

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz and Council Member Andrew Friedson previously told Bethesda Beat that the purpose of amending the order was to prevent the “yo-yo effect” of the mandate being lifted and then quickly reinstated.

County Council President Tom Hucker said before Tuesday’s vote that he understood the feedback from residents, both in support and against a mandate.

But he had also talked to many health officials in the community and others who said that despite some public pushback, county officials were making decisions to keep community members safe.

Hucker added that in recent months, officials didn’t have access to coronavirus booster shots and didn’t how soon 5- to 11-year-olds might be able to get the vaccine. (A CDC advisory panel on Tuesday voted to recommend approving a Pfizer vaccine for children in that age range, leading to the possibility that shots could start being offered in the next several days.)

“My experts reminded me this weekend: Milestones matter,” Hucker said. “We are nearing the holidays with people gathering inside more often. [And] critical to keeping our caseload down is getting our seniors and our immunocompromised residents their booster shots, which we didn’t have available this time last year.”

“We will continue to take a cautious approach,” he added. “We’ll continue to follow our public health professionals’ advice. … That may not be perfect, but we’re doing the best we can with that information in a nonpolitical, nonpartisan way.”

Friedson proposed two additional amendments to the order Tuesday.

One included a sunset provision that would permanently end the indoor mask mandate at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, and would require the county’s health officer to provide an update on COVID-19 health metrics by Dec. 16.

Council members did not support that, though, so it did not reach a vote.

They did, however, approve an amendment that would end the indoor mask mandate once 85% or more of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated. The county’s health officer or the Board of Health would not need to take any action for that to take effect.

“This regulation must terminate, and must have no further force or effect: effective 12:01 a.m. on the calendar day immediately following the date that 85% or more of the County’s total population is fully vaccinated, as reported by the CDC on its COVID Data Tracker,” the amendment states. 

As of Thursday, 77.5% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated and 86.2% had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the CDC. 

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