Montgomery County, Maryland’s top health official is asking county lawmakers to come up with a contingency plan for potentially reimposing tougher coronavirus restrictions if COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations surge, but he said the strategies would be more like “using a surgical knife as opposed to a broad hammer.”
Dr. Travis Gayles pointed to measures rolled out elsewhere in the U.S. as the more contagious delta variant spreads, such as restoring universal indoor mask requirements or requiring proof of vaccination status at certain venues.
“What we’re requesting … is that there be a plan put into place that comes up with metrics and measures that would trigger potential action to take next steps,” Gayles said, such as closures or stricter restrictions.
The county’s discussion came before news emerged that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was preparing to backpedal on its masking guidelines and recommend that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in some parts of the U.S.
Separately Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education is set to unveil rules for the fall about mask-wearing in school buildings. A number of Maryland school districts — including in neighboring Prince George’s County — have announced they will continue to require masks for students and teachers when the new school year starts.
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Overall, case rates in Maryland’s most populous county remain low, and while there have been some “breakthrough” infections, Gayles told members of the Montgomery County Council that he is not aware of any hospitalizations in the last month of county residents who were fully vaccinated.
“It’s important to note and to continue to emphasize that vaccination provides protection, and there is a small risk that you could still contract COVID, individuals who are fully vaccinated are not showing up in the hospitals,” Gayles said.
In the past month, there have been roughly 600 COVID-19 infections total in the county, according to the data Gayles presented to the council, meeting as the board of health. He pointed out that on some of the worst days of the pandemic last winter, the county was recording nearly that many cases on a single day.
Still, the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases — after weeks of a steady decline — is worrisome, he said.
“It is concerning from the public health perspective that we are continuing to see the upward trends in our numbers of new cases as the vaccine rate has slowed down,” Gayles said.
Gayles asked council members to start work on the contingency plans now “because we know that within the next several weeks, our kids will be back in school, businesses will continue to reopen again at fuller capacities, bringing folks back into offices … We want things to move forward but we want them to move forward safely.”
Earl Stoddard, the head of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said even with the rise in cases, the county hasn’t seen an increase in hospitalizations.
“We can’t let cases go up forever, even if hospitalizations, don’t go up, but if hospitalizations and cases go up, that’s a real alarm bell that you all should pay a lot of attention to,” Stoddard told council members.
There was also discussion of rolling out a vaccine requirement for county employees similar to steps New York City announced for municipal employees earlier this week.
“We are an employer, a very large employer, and I think we can lead by the power of our example,” said Council member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1 on the council.
Stoddard said the county doesn’t have updated data on vaccination rates of its employees but said it was likely substantially higher than elsewhere, in part because of the of the county’s overall high rates of vaccination.
Still, he said County Executive Marc Elrich had “expressed an interest” in mandating vaccination for county employees but would need to discuss the plan with employee labor groups.