‘Testing fatigue?’ COVID-19 case numbers tick up in Montgomery Co. but fewer people getting tested

Fewer people in Montgomery County, Maryland, are getting tested for the coronavirus even as the county has expanded its testing capacity, and the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise.

That’s according to Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, who briefed reporters on the latest figures on Wednesday.

“Although we’re ramping up testing, we continue to see a reduction in the volume of people coming in for testing in the county and around the state,” Elrich said.

In recent weeks, the number of coronavirus cases averaged around 70 new cases a day. However, since Labor Day — and Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that Maryland could move into Phase Three of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan — cases have ticked up to around 100.

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“We’ve already had a surge in cases,” Gayles said.

There hasn’t been a comparable increase in the number of people who have been hospitalized with serious illness, and the number COVID-19-related deaths have stayed low, he added.

As for the recent rise in cases, Gayles suggested a number of factors are likely at play, including travel related to Labor Day and large family gatherings.

“There is a tendency, unfortunately, to relax and to let down our guard a little bit. And that makes it easier for the virus to transmit,” Gayles said.

In general, he said public health officials are seeing “a little bit of relaxation” in people’s willingness to stick with measures designed to slow the spread of the virus, such as practicing physical distancing and wearing face coverings.

And something similar may be at play when it comes to the smaller numbers of people seeking COVID-19 tests.

“We think there is some testing fatigue,” Gayles said.

For example, a county-run testing site at the Silver Spring Civic Center, which had tested well over 1,000 on some days previously, was filling just 400 slots more recently.

“We still have the capacity to do that level of testing,” Gayles said, of the higher number of tests, “but we’re seeing lower numbers.”

Overall, county officials said they have restored the county’s testing capacity to about where it was in early August, when the county’s previous supplier of coronavirus testing, AdvaGenix, was ordered by the state to stop COVID-19 testing following a probe into its lab practices.

On Friday, the county signed a deal with Frederick-based CIAN Diagnostics Lab, which had been providing testing on an interim basis for the past few weeks. Elrich called the deal a “significant development” for the county’s testing efforts.

Gayles said the county has also had conversations with a number of other labs that could expand testing capacity even further, with a particular focus on rapid point-of-care testing.

“We are doubling down on making sure we reach out to the community to remind them that we have tests available,” Gayles said.

Another potential factor in the lower testing numbers is controversial guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month that suggested people without symptoms — even if they had been exposed to the virus — might not necessarily need to be tested.

Gayles said the county is continuing to urge everyone to get tested even if they are asymptomatic.

Yes to live performances, maybe to late-night alcohol sales

The county is also moving ahead with new guidelines that will allow outdoor performances at music venues.

The guidelines would limit audience attendance to 50 people and require that audience members must practice physical distancing and be sitting at least 6 feet away from other members of their households.

In order to host musical performances, venues will be required to submit applications to the county that includes seating charts that demonstrate proper physical distancing.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said he expected the process for venues to submit applications to go live later Wednesday and the first performances to happen within the next week.

“We know that obviously the time is ticking on outdoor activities being able to be done throughout the fall,” Stoddard said.

Separately, the county is in talks with representatives of the restaurant industry to discuss rolling back the county’s ban on late-night alcohol sales inside restaurants, on a limited basis.

Stoddard said the county is looking at an opt-in program where restaurants could sign up to, once again, serve alcohol between 10 p.m. and midnight, but only if they agree to enhanced safety rules, such as having workers on site whose specific responsibility would be to monitor compliance with physical distancing and face covering rules.

“If we saw that they weren’t upholding what they’ve committed to do, their approval to do so would be removed,” Stoddard said.

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