2021 | Government

Montgomery County’s indoor mask mandate could end Friday morning

Case rate per 100,000 people needs to stay below 50 for mandate to be lifted

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Editor’s note: The Montgomery County Council decided on Tuesday that the indoor mask mandate could end as soon as Thursday morning, rather than Friday morning. It was updated at 4:15 p.m. Oct. 29, 2021, to clarify details of when the mask mandate could end.

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Montgomery County’s indoor mask mandate could end Friday morning at the earliest, officials said Monday.

Sean O’Donnell, the public health emergency manager for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters on Monday that the county needs to stay in the “moderate transmission” category for that to occur. 

The mandate automatically ends when there have been seven consecutive days with the county in “moderate transmission,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moderate transmission is defined as 10 to 49.99 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period. Per CDC guidelines and given Montgomery County’s population, the county needs to stay below 50 cases per 100,000 people for seven straight days to stay in moderate transmission.

The county dropped from “substantial” to “moderate” on Thursday. “Substantial transmission” is 50 to 99.99 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period.

As of Monday afternoon, the county had 45.7 cases per 100,000 residents, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. If that rate rises higher than 50 before the seven-day period ends, the clock resets, officials have said.

O’Donnell said that if the current trends hold, the mask mandate would be lifted at midnight at the end of the night on Thursday. Even though the county first entered “moderate transmission” on Thursday, it takes extra time for CDC data to align with state and local data, and for health officials to confirm the trend, he added.

That means the county should be able to confirm that it has seen seven straight days of “moderate transmission” by Thursday, O’Donnell said.

Then, James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, and colleagues will draft a notice to the County Council, stating that the mask mandate ends at midnight at the end of the night on Thursday of this week.

Even if the county’s mask mandate is lifted later this week, masks will still be required on public transportation, per federal law, O’Donnell said.

He said masks also will likely be required in public schools for at least the near future, as the state’s Board of Education passed an indoor mask mandate, based on guidance from the state’s Department of Health.

If the indoor mask mandate ends, O’Donnell said Monday he believed it could be reinstated if the county saw seven straight days of substantial transmission, but needed to recheck the Board of Health order. That would mean a week of 50 or more cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period.

In other words, if the county reports 75 or more new coronavirus cases per day for seven straight days, the mandate will be reinstated. 

Senior county officials said in later days, however, that the county only needed to enter one day of substantial transmission for the mask mandate to be reinstated. 

O’Donnell said the timeline for when the indoor mask mandate for schools ends likely depends on how quickly a coronavirus vaccine is available for 5- to 11-year-olds. 

“I think everyone realizes we are very, very close to having authorization to begin vaccinating the 5- to 11-year-olds and provide even more protection at our schools,” O’Donnell said. “So, we’re hopeful that we can continue to protect those kids with the social distancing and with masking until we can get them vaccinated.”

O’Donnell said vaccines could be available to that age group by the first or second weekend of November, if the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC grant approval to the Pfizer vaccine. 

He added that county DHHS officials are looking at running some larger sites with longer hours of operation to help parents bring their children after school, while also partnering with Montgomery County Public Schools to offer clinics throughout the school system.

In a separate news briefing with reporters on Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan and state health officials said they are prepared to start distributing vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds “immediately” after the CDC grants approval.

“They [the federal government] are pre-positioning the vaccine, which is why we’ve already ordered [it],” Maryland Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader told reporters. “And as soon as it gets here, we’ll be ready, as [Deputy Secretary of Public Health Services] Dr. [Jinlene] Chan is talking to all of the providers to get ready. We want to start immediately.”

In a meeting with reporters on Monday, County Council President Tom Hucker thanked the county’s residents for their efforts in getting vaccinated, and encouraged them to try to convince others who haven’t done so, to keep coronavirus metrics trending in the right direction.

“You can travel around the country and not see the sort of rational public health [and] conscious behavior that you see in Montgomery County, so I’m really grateful to all our residents for driving the data down,” Hucker said.

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