Amid talk of reopening rollback, Montgomery Co.’s coronavirus numbers under scrutiny

Amid a rise in the number of coronavirus cases across the country, officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they’re closely monitoring a persistent uptick that could result in them walking back some of the recent loosening of the county’s virus-related restrictions.

During an online news briefing Wednesday, officials stressed that no new restrictions were imminent and might not be necessary at all if the recent increases in COVID-19 cases dissipate.

“We don’t want to have to walk anything back,” said county Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles. But if cases continue climbing, “we are ready to respond,” he added.

Gayles said rather than issuing “blanket closures,” the county would likely start with tweaking capacity limits at businesses and gatherings.

A county program to allow late-night alcohol sales by dine-in customers could also be on the chopping block — if cases keep rising — “as part of a larger effort to restrict certain activities,” said Earl Stoddard, the director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

He said the recent rise in cases predates the return of late-night alcohol sales.

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The test positivity rate — the percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus — remains below a key global bench mark of 5%. In Montgomery County, it’s currently 3.1%

However, Gayles said his team is seeing concerning increases, particularly in people age 40 and older.

“And that’s important because we know that older groups … have an increased risk of having more severe outcomes related to COVID, including (being) more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to experience COVID-related fatalities. So, we’re keeping a very close eye on that.”

Though the hospitalization rate has remained low in Montgomery County, increasing numbers of older people falling ill could reverse that trend.

With the changing weather, data from state contact tracing teams show it’s also shifting, Stoddard said. The number of cases tied to potential outdoor gatherings is decreasing, and the cases tied to indoor gatherings is rising, he said.

“It’s almost shifting one for one over into indoor dining and indoor activities,” Stoddard said. “As the weather gets cooler, this is what you would expect.”

The data also show an increase in the number of cases potentially connected with religious gatherings, he said.

County leaders called on residents to remain vigilant.

“We recognize that there is significant fatigue, everybody’s tired, you know, from having to deal with this,” Gayles said. “But we cannot let down our guard. And we have to continue even in spaces with people we’re familiar with, who are part of our families.”

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