2021 | Government

Montgomery County plans to require vaccines or testing for its employees

Elrich, health officials said logistics are being finalized

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This story was updated at 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2021, to include a comment from Lee Holland, a spokesman for the county’s police union. 

County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday that county employees will soon either have to get vaccinated for the coronavirus or be regularly tested, as case counts have increased in recent weeks.

Elrich said during a news conference that the process of requiring vaccinations or tests “takes time,” given the time — three or four weeks — to go from first dose of a vaccine to full vaccination.  

Earl Stoddard, an acting assistant chief administrative officer for Elrich, said there’s “a loose agreement” with union representatives to implement such a policy soon. The logistics that need to be finalized include ensuring medical confidentiality for those who get tested and vaccinated. 

The announcement comes shortly after President Joe Biden announced that federal employees must either be vaccinated against the coronavirus, or submit to mandatory masking and testing and practice social distancing, along with other measures.

Lee Holland, corporation vice president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police union — the county’s police union — wasn’t against the proposal, but was concerned about the logistics. 

County officials should figure out how many employees are fully vaccinated and determine how many tests and vaccines might be needed before finalizing a plan, Holland said in an interview. If enough county employees are vaccinated, the policy might not be needed, he added. 

There’s also the issue of medical privacy, Holland said — those who would regularly be tested would be recognized as people who aren’t vaccinated.

Some county employees, including police, might be willing to get the vaccine once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves the coronavirus vaccines, on top of the emergency authorization, he said. 

“To say we’re close to having this done is a little premature,” Holland said. 

Elrich also said he would prefer that the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, follow the science and approve a proposed health regulation that would require mandatory masking in all indoor public spaces. 

Health officials have made the recommendation for mandatory mask use indoors if the county sees “substantial transmission” of the coronavirus, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a seven-day period. 

That equates to either 75 new cases per day or 525 cases over a seven-day period. Health officials said that once that threshold is meant, the mask mandate would take effect, if supported by the Board of Health.

On Wednesday morning, the county reported 98 new cases. The seven-day average for new cases is about 78.7 cases, according to state health data, which would be past the threshold for the mask mandate.

Currently, the county is at “moderate transmission,” according to the CDC. But Elrich, displaying a map of jurisdictions around the region showing “substantial transmission,” said it likely won’t be long until Montgomery County gets there, too.

“We’re an island, but we’re not going to be an island very long,” Elrich said Wednesday.

Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s deputy health officer, said the threshold for the mask regulation to be removed would be 14 days of transmission at a “moderate” or lower level of transmission.

Health officials are also monitoring hospitalizations, deaths and positivity rates to see whether those spike.

Elrich and Stoddard added, however, that there could be a provision in the Board of Health regulation further specifying when the mask mandate would be lifted. The 14-day guideline is based on CDC guidance and could serve as a model, but the Board of Health has the final say, Stoddard added. 

“We’re obviously concerned about the yo-yoing,” Stoddard said. “You could go below, above [the threshold] for a period of time, so I think we’re trying to add some more integrity to the process.” 

The Board of Health is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Thursday to discuss and vote on the proposed regulation

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