Montgomery County, Maryland, continues to see elevated delta-driven levels of COVID-19, but with lower hospitalizations and exceedingly few deaths. The county’s health officer said Monday the county’s path navigating through delta could be indicative of what “post-COVID life” actually looks like.
Looming large, though, is the question of what happens now that thousands of students have returned to classrooms across the county with the start of the new school year.
Overall, Montgomery County has recorded 3,324 coronavirus cases over the past four weeks, outgoing Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said Monday during a weekly briefing with Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker and Vice President Gabe Albornoz.
In recent days, the county tipped over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threshold for “high transmission.” As of Monday, the county, which has more than a million residents, is averaging more than 100 coronavirus cases per day after consistently seeing daily cases in the single digits throughout June.
But the county, which reimposed an indoor mask mandate earlier this month, appears to have achieved a state of COVID equilibrium.
“Fortunately, (the increase in cases) has not translated into a comparable increase in terms of hospitalizations,” Gayles said.
“This is suggestive and kind of gives us a little bit of a picture of what post-COVID life will look like, as we are likely to continue to see COVID cases in the community. But the question will be how many of those translate into hospitalizations and COVID-related fatalities,” he said.
Overall, 138 people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 over the past four weeks, Gayles said.
Of the total number of cases over the past four weeks, roughly a third have been breakthrough cases — people who were fully vaccinated at the time. Of the 138 hospitalizations, 36 were of patients who were fully vaccinated.
The majority of breakthrough cases are happening in younger age groups, people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, Gayles said.
Breakthrough hospitalizations, however, have been more likely to involve patients older than 60. Gayles said older people are likely to have additional health issues.
New school year: ‘We are likely to see cases pop up in school’
One potential variable in the COVID-19 outlook: Montgomery County, the most populous county in Maryland and home to the state’s largest public school system, welcomed more than 150,000 students back to classrooms on Monday.
“As we move forward, hopefully the numbers stay where they are, particularly as we are introducing kids back into the school setting, and we have such a significant population of zero- to 12-year-olds who are not able to be vaccinated,” Gayles said.
He pointed to COVID-19 mitigation plans crafted by schools, which include mandating masks indoors, a vaccine requirement for teachers and staff, enhanced ventilation, outdoor lunch periods and other steps.
Still, it’s inevitable that there will be coronavirus cases linked to school reopening, he said.
“I want to prepare folks at home: We are likely to see cases pop up in schools. We are likely to have some significant quarantines related to potential exposures,” Gayles said.
But Gayles said he believes the impact and disruptions could be limited based on contact tracing and investigation methods perfected by the county health department and their work with schools over the past year and a half.
“I want to reassure you that all of the steps that we are taking now in terms of contact-tracing and contact investigation are consistent with everything we have done throughout the pandemic,” he said.
The Montgomery County Public Schools COVID-19 contingency planning indicates entire school buildings would only be closed and students directed to virtual leaning at the request of the state.
“I know it’s an anxious time right now,” Gayles said, but he pointed to the fact that public schools and private schools in the county were able to return to offering some level of in-person classes last spring “with a lot of these policies in place fairly successfully and were able to close out the school year.”
He added: “What’s also encouraging to me from a public health perspective is not only have they done the due diligence to make their best effort to put in protocols, they’ve also indicated a willingness to be flexible and nimble to tweak those protocols to address any potential outbreaks or any particular change in terms of how the virus is impacting the schools.”
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