The day after the Biden administration announced new masking guidelines for large swathes of the county where coronavirus cases are rising — including in D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia — officials in Maryland’s Montgomery County are taking a wait-and-see approach to implementing stronger restrictions to tamp down on the spread of the virus.
There has been a moderate uptick in coronavirus cases recently in the county, which is Maryland’s most populous. But County Executive Marc Elrich said the recent rise “is really occurring in the largely unvaccinated population of Montgomery County … This is intensely going through that community.”
The county has some of the best vaccination rates in the U.S. with 83% of its eligible population already fully vaccinated, which health officer Dr. Travis Gayles called a “game-changer” for the county compared to other parts of the U.S. struggling with even more dramatic increases in virus case rates.
Montgomery County officials continued to call on people to get vaccinated, as it is the most effective way to combat the spread of the virus.
“The unvaccinated are at great risk and they’re putting others at risk,” Elrich said. “There’s no better way or nicer way to say it.”
Overall, 77% of the county’s new cases in recent weeks have involved people who are not vaccinated, he added.
Nevertheless, the county, which is known for its exceptionally cautious approach throughout the pandemic, is keeping a close watch on case rates, hospitalizations and the rate of vaccinations in the county, and could recommend imposing some level of restrictions again, according to Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles.
“There’s a host of different tools in the tool kit that could be potentially effective dependent upon how the numbers and the trends go,” he said.
For example, the county could return to requiring masks indoors again, as well as both indoors and outdoors, Gayles said, which he described as a possible “early set of interventions” that could help cut community transmission.
If conditions worsen further, the county could consider capacity restrictions on businesses, which were in place for most of the pandemic and only lifted in the spring.
Officials stressed such measures are not imminent and could be avoided entirely if the county’s numbers stay low.
“We don’t want to have to do any of this, we want to continue to … move forward and open things up, but make sure we do it as safely as possible,” Gayles said.
On the other hand, officials said they don’t want to wait too long to take action.
“No one wants to have to implement additional restrictions of any kind,” said Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “We’re not interested in doing it. We’re hoping that you know the cases flatten out or come back down without us having to implement some of the restrictions.”
As it stands now, the new CDC guidelines continue to classify coronavirus transmission at moderate levels in Montgomery County, below the threshold at which a return to indoor masking is recommended.
The CDC guidelines are based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. A rate over 50 is considered “substantial” transmission. Montgomery County’s transmission rate, according to July 25 CDC data, is 28 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days.
“We don’t want to wait till things are really bad — then we have to put in more draconian measures very quickly,” Stoddard said.
Any new restrictions would require approval by the Montgomery County Council acting as the board of health.
Given the rapid rise of cases in the Southern U.S., including Texas and Florida, another potential step the county could consider is issuing a travel advisory for county residents traveling to certain areas where COVID-19 is surging.
But for now, officials urged people to take common-sense approaches.
“We encourage folks … to be mindful of where you’re traveling, do your research in terms of knowing what the community transmission levels are of the places that you’re going,” Gayles said, and then follow the masking guidelines at your destination.
He also encouraged people who return from places with high COVID-19 transmission rates to get tested.