Lawmakers in Montgomery County, Maryland, say the indoor mask mandate put in place in August amid the delta variant surge will end a day earlier than initially planned, as long as the transmission of the virus holds at current levels.
The indoor mask mandate is now set to lift at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, after informal action taken Tuesday by the Montgomery County Council, acting as the board of health.
There has been confusion and mixed messages about when the mask mandate is set to end as Maryland’s largest county has seen improving COVID-19 transmission rates recently.
Under a regulation approved by the health board in August, the indoor mask mandate automatically lifts after seven consecutive days of moderate or lower transmission, which means fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days.
The county first recorded moderate transmission of the virus on Thursday, Oct. 21.
On Monday, health officials said the mask mandate wouldn’t lift until 12:01 a.m. Friday — assuming current transmission levels hold. However, that was due to an apparent discrepancy in interpreting the regulations over when the seven-day countdown began.
During a council meeting Tuesday, council member Andrew Friedson said he believed the plain language of the regulation means the seventh consecutive day would fall on Thursday, Oct. 28.
“If the Capitals win seven consecutive games, the first game that they won counts by any plain language understanding of what that means,” said Friedson, who wrote the initial amendment inserting the automatic off-ramp to the county’s mask mandate.
Council member Sidney Katz agreed. And when no other members objected to an early Thursday morning date, the board of health gave its stamp of approval.
Even when the mask mandate lifts, unvaccinated people should still wear masks indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
In addition, businesses can still require customers to wear masks indoors, and masks will still be required in schools and on public transportation.
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County’s plan for vaccinating young children: Hub sites at middle schools
Separately Tuesday, county health officials came before the board to lay out their plans for getting COVID-19 vaccine shots in the arms of young children — and said they are expecting extremely high demand from Montgomery County parents once the vaccines receive federal authorization.
The Food and Drug Administration is set to meet Tuesday to review data related to the efficacy and safety of the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 5 to 11. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immunization committee will meet on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3.
The first draft of the county’s plan, previewed Tuesday, calls for nine weekend vaccination clinic “hubs” at middle schools across the county, with plans to provide bus transportation for parents and their children.
Pointing to the vaccination data from the effort to get 12-to-15-year-olds vaccinated earlier this year, officials said they expect a big wave of interested parents looking to get their children vaccinated shortly after federal authorization comes.
“We are preparing for a large initial demand,” said Sean O’Donnell, with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
There are an estimated 95,000 to 105,000 5-to-11-year-olds in the county.
Working with Montgomery County Public Schools, health officials have identified nine middle schools that will serve as “hubs” for weekend vaccination clinics with expanded hours.
The schools were chosen based on a number of factors, including increasing access to specific census tracts with overall lower vaccination rates, focusing on ZIP codes with higher COVID-19 case rates and seeking to reduce racial and ethnic disparities.
O’Donnell said middle schools were chosen, because they generally have larger parking lots and better indoor infrastructures than elementary schools.
MCPS is planning to provide bus service on weekends to provide access to the sites, O’Donnell said.
However, some council members criticized their plans, saying the county should be offering vaccinations directly at elementary schools.
“This is what I’ve been asking for, what the community’s asking for, for six months,” Hucker said. “We need them at Rolling Terrace; we need them at Broad Acres; we need them at New Hampshire Estates. We need them in many other impacted elementary schools where people who don’t have a car can walk there and meet with a trusted provider in the highest-impacted ZIP code. They’re not going to be able to take a bus to a middle school that is in their cluster, but their child doesn’t attend.”
Acting Health Officer Dr. James Bridgers said the county plans to turn to community partners to roll out additional vaccination opportunities directly at elementary schools.
Concerns were also raised about the potential limited supply of pediatric doses available leading to a potential “Groundhog Day” of frustration over getting vaccine appointments.
The county’s plans are not only contingent upon the federal authorization, but also on the shipment of vaccine doses from the state.
Vaccines authorized for 5-to-11-year-olds will come in a lower dose and be packaged separately. Local health officials have been told they are not allowed to use their current stockpile of adult Pfizer doses.
Overall, the state of Maryland has requested 180,000 pediatric doses of the vaccine for the first three weeks of the rollout, which equates to about 60,000 doses per week.
Montgomery County has requested the maximum 20,000 doses for the first week, but it’s unclear how many the county will end up getting. It’s also not clear not how many doses will be delivered for use by the county health department versus doses supplied directly to pediatricians and family doctors.
Providing doses directly to pediatricians is a key part of a national strategy for getting young children vaccinated outlined by the Biden administration.
More than 100 pediatricians in Montgomery County have signed up to administer vaccine doses.
“Based on the numbers … we know we’re going to have a supply and demand issue for the first few weeks,” Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, an at-large member of the council, said.
He added, “We need to stress to families that their children will receive the vaccination, it just may not be within those first few weeks.”