Montgomery Co. officials: COVID-19 vaccine is coming, but hold off on big New Year’s celebrations

Montgomery County’s executive and other officials said that while more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are expected to roll into the county in the coming days, it’s not known when they will be available to people other than front-line workers.

In the meantime, County Executive Marc Elrich said residents should continue to be careful regarding the virus when celebrating New Year’s Eve on Thursday night.

While Tuesday’s new cases of the coronavirus were down to 291 from 410 on Monday, Elrich said numbers fluctuate all the time, and that people shouldn’t read too much into day-to-day changes. “A good day is a good day and a bad day is a bad day,” he said.

Meanwhile, the percentage of tests that come back positive is 7.2%, well above the recommended standard of 5%, and cases are at 39.1 per 100,000 residents in the county. Both are “multiples of what we had seen in the summer,” Elrich added.

“If we need to have a New Year’s party in July, we can have a New Year’s party in July,” the county executive said, adding that he once drove as far as Pittsburgh for a New Year’s Eve concert. On New Year’s Eve this year, “Don’t do it.”

Even six feet apart, if you’re in a closed room with people for a long time, such as at a party, “the longer you’re there, the more you’re exposed,” he said.

Elrich said finding a way to safely celebrate the holidays in a pandemic is “really hard,” adding that his daughter had COVID-19 and recovered. He added that his grandchildren were staying three blocks away, “and I got to see them walk past my house.”

Elrich said that the first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine arrived in the county last week, and they’re still setting up clinics to vaccinate people in priority group 1A — health care workers and long-term care facility residents and workers. He said that totaled about 300,000 people.

Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said officials can tell you what priority group you’re in, but “we don’t have a hard and fast date” when the vaccination program can move from one priority group of people to the next.

Gayles added that he got the Moderna vaccine last Wednesday, “and I feel fine.”

Holiday travel, hospital capacity

Despite the pandemic, a record number of Americans traveled for the holidays, and the officials said it’s not known yet how that will affect the numbers.

“It is concerning that we saw record levels of travel through our airports,” Gayles said, but while travel is an important component of spread, what people do when they land is more critical, he said.

He did say, however, that there are currently higher levels of community spread than before Thanksgiving.

As to whether hospitals are able to handle an onrush of virus patients, particularly in intensive care, Gayles said the hospitals have plenty of space, but staffing is the concern.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, Montgomery County’s director of emergency management and homeland security, agreed, adding that while newly created ICU beds can take patients, they “will not necessarily [receive] the same quality” of care. “You cannot conjure ICU doctors and nurses out of thin air,” Stoddard said.

He added that there are follow-on effects to the surge: Doctors and nurses can be freed up by delaying elective surgeries, for example, “but if you’re the one who’s having a heart transplant, your surgery doesn’t seem all that elective to you.”

Without staffing, “you can’t keep adding more and more [beds] and expect that to hold up,” Stoddard said.

Asked about the closure of White’s Ferry on Monday, Elrich said it was the result of a dispute between ferry operators and the owner of the land in Loudoun County, Virginia, in which the ferry operates. He said Montgomery County had no jurisdiction over the dispute, but hoped it would be resolved soon.

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