If you’ve taken a coronavirus test in Montgomery County, Maryland, lately, be prepared to wait for your results.
Amid an ongoing surge in coronavirus cases in the region, Montgomery County officials say “overstretched” labs across the region are facing delays in reporting results in part because of the onslaught of people seeking tests before and after the Thanksgiving holiday.
“This is not again an issue that only exists in Montgomery County. This is happening all over the place because the labs are trying to work through the backlog from the Thanksgiving rush,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during an online media briefing Wednesday.
“They are not equipped to deal with this volume of testing … This continues to be a problem,” Elrich added. “We’re asking people to be patient.”
County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said the county is taking steps to grow and diversify its lab capacity, including working with student nurses at the University of Maryland to support some of the county’s testing platforms. “But the fact of the matter is every lab right now across the country, including the state’s public health lab” is facing delays in reporting test results, he said.
“I share your frustration; we’d love to get those results back quickly,” Gayles said. “The labs are overstretched right now.”
The time to report test results has also crept up in neighboring D.C., where the average test turnaround — which was about two days a few weeks ago — has crawled to more than four days currently.
Gayles said the delays in test results are a symptom of the escalating COVID-19 surge in the region.
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“The reality is we’re here because we have record levels of community transmission and record levels of cases, and we can’t forget that,” Gayles said.
Montgomery County on Tuesday recorded 505 new coronavirus infections — the second highest number since the beginning of the pandemic.
Both the test positivity rate — the percentage of tests coming back positive — and the number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents have climbed sharply over the past week, officials said. Currently, the test positivity rate is 5.6%, and the number of cases per 100,000 is 31.
For the past few days, the county’s hospital capacity has hovered around 75%. Elrich said, however, county officials were recently told that under the state’s hospital surge plan, patients from other jurisdictions could be transported to be treated at Montgomery County’s hospitals.
“So, the filling of our hospital may not only depend on what happens in Montgomery County but it can be affected by what happens outside of Montgomery County,” Elrich said.
The county’s update came a day after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced additional steps to preserve the state’s hospital capacity as beds across the state fill up.
County officials said they welcomed the governor’s plans, but that additional action is likely warranted to stem the surge in coronavirus infections, which is fueling the rise in hospitalizations to begin with.
“We can only surge the hospital and health care system so far,” said Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “We certainly should be trying to stretch our health care system and provide as much capacity as we can. But if we do nothing to prevent that capacity from being reached, there will be a lot of Marylanders who are not with us next year that would have been otherwise.”
Elrich called the recent numbers “alarming,” adding, “We’re just not going to wave the white flag and say our hospitals will fill up.”
He suggested the county was close to putting in place new restrictions.
“It’s our responsibility to prevent this from happening and we’re looking at every possible avenue to prevent our hospitals from filling up, and what that means is finding ways of keeping people from getting exposed and getting sick,” Elrich added.
Rather than another stay-at-home order, which Elrich called a “blanket approach,” he said the county is scouring contact tracing data and also consulting with neighboring jurisdictions on possibilities.
“We’re looking at what actions we could take with them and have the highest impact on case reduction. We could do this alone, but we really shouldn’t,” he said.
Elrich added that the county has been among the most cautious at reopening. “We’ve been more closed than most people have been,” he said, and pointed to the fact that Hogan overruled the county’s effort to keep private schools closed over the summer.
“So, there’s a lot of concern that, you know, if we stray too, too far from where the governor is, then we could lose our own ability to do some of these things ourselves, and then we’d be stuck with the state’s restrictions,” Elrich said.
Even with recent positive news about multiple coronavirus vaccines, officials pleaded with county residents to keep up with mask-wearing and social distancing, and to heed public health guidelines.
“While it’s good to be sitting in a place where we can see what the future is going to bring, the future is not here … So, I am begging people: Please be patient,” Elrich said. “Please listen to the guidance that we’re trying to give you from our health officials and be careful.”
Gayles said officials “continue to get bombarded” with emails about easing restrictions.
“You would think in a setting where we’re telling you that, in the absence of further actions, the hospitals will run out of space, and we not have room to take care of people that that would resonate more, and it just simply hasn’t,” Gayles said.
COVID kits to be distributed
Montgomery County also announced Wednesday that it would distribute nearly 4,000 COVID-19 preparedness kits packed with hand sanitizer, masks and no-contact infrared thermometers in three ZIP codes “hardest hit by the virus.”
The three ZIP codes are 20902, 20904 and 20906.
The kits will be distributed at food distribution sites in Wheaton and Silver Spring:
- Hughes United Methodist (10700 Georgia Ave. in Wheaton), Dec. 8 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Oak Chapel United Methodist Church (14500 Layhill Rd. in Silver Spring), Dec. 10 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- East County HUB at East County Community Recreation Center (3310 Gateshead Manor Way in Silver Spring), Dec. 12, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
The county handed out about 1,000 kits in Wheaton last month.