‘We have a caseload which is still growing:’ Montgomery Co. may not follow Maryland’s Phase 1 reopening

While Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said he sympathizes with his constituents who are dealing with “quarantine fatigue,” he pledged Saturday to be “very careful” about reopening regardless of what Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says next week about Phase 1 of the state’s plan.

“We’re not the western part of the state or parts of the Eastern Shore,” Elrich said in a Zoom meeting with reporters to discuss the county’s management of the coronavirus crisis. “We have a caseload which is still growing. We have the second largest number of cases in the state. We are a densely packed community, and when you think about it, ourselves, and the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County just overlap with each other. Our borders are completely fluid.”

Elrich said he shares the concerns of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks who each expressed concerns about reopening too soon during briefings on Friday.

“We know that when our economy reopens in our jurisdiction, this region and around the country, without a vaccine or a cure, we will see increased infections and we will see increases in loss of life,” Bowser said.

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Prince George’s County has suffered badly from the virus, with a case count of close to 9,000 and deaths topping 200.

“We’re going to also make decisions that are specific and tailored to the challenges that we have met here in Prince George’s, because we already know this virus has impacted us in a unique way,” Alsobrooks said on Friday.

While Montgomery County’s chief public health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, provided some data to show that hospitalizations have dropped from a peak for 26% to 20 or 21% in the last week, he maintains that Maryland’s most populous county “shares the angst and anxieties with our peer jurisdictions in terms of reopening too quickly.”

Both Elrich and Gayles expressed interest in working in concert with D.C. and Prince George’s County to create a thoughtful plan on reopening and hoped Virginia’s jurisdictions just across the Potomac River would maintain the same vigilance even if the commonwealth’s Gov. Ralph Northam begins the first phase of reopening as soon as May 15.

Arlington County on Friday said it is pushing its neighboring counties to work with the Virginia governor to permit the most congested part of the state to reopen more cautiously.

In a statement Friday, Arlington’s board said even if the rest of the state begins to open on May 15, with hospitalizations rising in Northern Virginia, “the most responsible path forward is maintaining our current operating status.”

Elrich said he would be thrilled to go to a restaurant in Montgomery County and not have to bring his food home and do dishes for the first time in over a month, “but until our health officer says it’s safe, we will not be opening some of these things.”

He specifically mentioned that Montgomery County is unlikely to open campgrounds, pointing to a concern that multiple groups of people camping can often precipitate a party, and “I’m haunted by the story about Chicago that the massive outbreaks were triggered by two social events.” Elrich also noted that playgrounds may not open in Montgomery County even if they do so in other parts of Maryland.

In addition, Elrich pleaded with his colleagues in Virginia to not open attractions that might entice Marylanders to cross the state border, expose themselves to a crowded mall or movie theater, and then return home and unwittingly spread the virus.

He said he hopes Gov. Northam allows leaders in Northern Virginia “a degree of latitude” to make decisions based on what their local health departments are seeing as far as rates of infection and hospitalizations.

“It would be a huge mistake to let up and have it expand even further and wind up in trouble again, more trouble that we’re in right now,” Elrich said. “I hope people will bear with us.”

Dr. Gayles said the county will soon be announcing testing protocols for residents who are essential employees and have continued working outside of their homes during the stay-at-home order. Testing people who are interacting with the public due to their jobs, but are not showing signs of being sick, will allow the county to get a better sense of how the disease has spread, Gayles said.

In addition, the county is making progress on hiring contact tracers and enhancing its ability to test contacts of those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Right now, Gayles said Montgomery County is testing over 2% of its residents, which is in line with Gov. Hogan’s Phase One requirements, but officials would like to see that number increase.

Testing supplies have grown in recent weeks to allow the county to test residents who are not exhibiting signs of being sick. Gayles also said, while testing capacity has increased, the county is not confident enough in any form of antibody testing to begin to test residents to find out about undiagnosed cases.

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Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for USATODAY.com, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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