‘At risk’: Montgomery Co. officials point to rising coronavirus cases

Officials in Montgomery County are urging Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to reconsider the statewide easing of coronavirus capacity restrictions amid concern about a rise in virus case numbers across the state.

County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday during an online media briefing he also hopes the county council, which had also eased some restrictions — albeit more slowly than the state — would also take a hard look at the latest coronavirus data.

“The council said they would reexamine the data when they opened, and they’ve got data to look at. I know what I think of the data,” Elrich said.

The governor lifted statewide coronavirus capacity restrictions across Maryland earlier this month, although he kept a requirement that people wear face coverings and that restaurants, for example, maintain social distancing.

In the wake of that move, the county council, acting as the board of health, reissued coronavirus rules for the county that moved more slowly in lifting restrictions. Under those rules, indoor dining remained capped at 25% capacity until last Friday, when it expanded to 50%. Movie theaters were also allowed to reopen for the first time since the pandemic began starting at 25% capacity.

“The question I have for the governor is at what point do you look at the data and make a different decision?” Elrich said.

Short of outright reimposing restrictions, Elrich suggested the governor or council release public metrics that would indicate a trigger point for rolling some of the reopening measures back if the uptick in cases becomes a surge.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, presented data comparing data from March 8 — a few days before Hogan made his announcement — and March 31, showing a modest but steady uptick in test positivity rates across the state since the governor’s announcement.

Earlier this month, the statewide positivity rate stood at 3.36%. It has since increased to 5.3%.

Before the governor’s announcement, no Maryland county was above an average of 25 new cases per 100,000 residents. As of Wednesday, there were four counties in the “red zone,” Gayles said, including Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Harford and Washington counties.

People hospitalized with serious cases of COVID-19 are also on an upswing, according to state data.

Montgomery County continues to fare better than the rest of the state. Earlier this month, the positivity rate was 2.73%, and it has since ticked up to 3.22%. The case rate per 100,000, which was 9.33 earlier this month, has increased to just under 12 as of Wednesday.

Officials have long said that Montgomery County’s more cautious approach has helped it keep its case numbers low and have repeatedly stressed that the county, Maryland’s most populous, is not in a bubble. Case rates and positivity rates for nearby Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, for example, are significantly higher than in Montgomery County.

“The numbers are concerning, and the numbers are increasing across the board,” Gayles said.

Elrich added, “The more it gets out of control in other places, the more at risk we are in Montgomery County, and I’m worried about the county’s numbers because the county numbers are trending up.”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Officials said they suspect part of the increase in cases is tied to coronavirus variants that are spreading across the country. Five of the different strains have already been identified in Montgomery County. The strain that was first identified in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, appears to be more transmissible than the traditional strain.

“We suspect that this is what is driving the significant increase in the number of cases in the Baltimore metropolitan area and thereby ultimately across the state,” Gayles said.

But the county officials said the governor’s lifting of restrictions earlier this month sent the wrong message to the public.

“The governor kind of signaled to people that it’s time to go back to normal. I don’t think that was the right signal,” Elrich said, adding later, “My preference would have been caution, prolonged caution” until more of the state’s population is vaccinated.

Overall, Maryland has administered at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine to nearly 1.5 million Marylanders, and the state announced Wednesday that 75% of residents 75 and older have been vaccinated.

New vaccine site

Officials also noted the opening of the county’s new vaccine site at the Germantown campus of Montgomery County, which is expected to transition to a mass vaccination site next week with the capacity to do some 3,000 vaccinations a day when fully up and running.

The vaccine site opened Wednesday in a pilot phase with operations run by the county.

The county is still in talks with the state about how many appointments per week are expected to go to county residents who have signed up on the county’s preregistration list, versus those who have signed up for a slot on the state’s portal for mass vaccination appointments. The county is urging Montgomery County residents to sign up on both lists to increase their chances of getting an appointment sooner.

At the six mass vaccination sites currently up and running, 7% of appointments are earmarked for residents of the host county.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, the head of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said the county is hoping for even more for its site — as many as a quarter to a third of appointments. But he said no final decision had been made by the state.

Also new Wednesday, the county is asking all residents to preregister on the county list — even those who are not yet eligible for the vaccine under the state’s eligibility guidelines.

The county health department is now receiving 10,730 vaccine doses a week — more than double the number it was receiving a month ago.

On Tuesday, Maryland entered Phase 2B of the vaccine rollout, which made Marylanders 16 and older with underlying medical conditions eligible for the shots. That’s in addition to all Marylanders 60 and older and some categories of essential workers.

Starting April 13, statewide eligibility expands to those 55 and older, as well as all essential workers in critical industries. All Marylanders over 16 will be eligible for the vaccines by April 27.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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