Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they’re hiring 100 additional medical staff for a mobile unit that will deploy to schools around the county and administer daily rapid tests to reduce large-scale COVID-19 quarantines.
Already, about 30 testers have been hired and another 30 are expected to be onboarded by the end of next week, Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said during an online media briefing Wednesday.
Stoddard said county officials are meeting with Montgomery County Public Schools leaders Thursday to discuss rolling out the “test-to-stay” program, and will also brief the Maryland Department of Health on the county’s planning.
Late last month, the county said it was working on developing a test-to-stay model, which administers daily rapid tests to students after a known COVID-19 exposure and allows them to stay in the classroom as long as they keep testing negative.
The school system currently uses rapid tests to confirm whether students presenting with symptoms are positive for the coronavirus, as well as to conduct surveillance testing.
Stoddard said the finer details are still being worked out.
“We want to make sure that what we’re doing works,” he said. “And so I’m not going to commit to a timeline specifically today, but we are talking about once we get the 60 on board, we could potentially start beginning this process,” he said, of the program.
Even fully staffed, the testing unit wouldn’t be large enough to have one team for each of the county’s 134 elementary schools — because of their age, nearly all elementary students remain unvaccinated. So the idea is to have the units travel to different schools, especially those that are seeing the highest testing volume currently, he said.
Even once up and running, Stoddard said, the test-to-stay model won’t keep every student exposed to the coronavirus out of quarantine, but he said it should reduce the large quarantines that result from entire classrooms being asked to stay home.
Last week, about a dozen entire classrooms — each with about 20 students per classroom — were sent home to quarantine after a known positive COVID-19 case in the classroom, he said.
“Now, I realize that doesn’t get everyone back into the classroom, but it substantially reduces the number of quarantine kids, and obviously as we get more resources onboarded, we’ll be able to further reduce that number progressively throughout the throughout the next several weeks and months,” Stoddard said.
The testers are also being trained to act as vaccinators and could rapidly pivot to administering vaccinations of 5- to-11-year-olds once the COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use in young children.
Federal health officials are expected to review data regarding the efficacy of vaccines in young children later this month.
Debate continues over vaccine mandate for county employees
Amid a contentious debate between County Executive Marc Elrich and some members of the county council over a no opt-out vaccine mandate, Elrich said a study of staffing flexibility at county agencies that provide critical services, such as firefighters and first responders, is due out next week.
Elrich, who insists he supports a vaccine mandate in principle but opposes the council’s proposed legislation, has said he fears county workers would retire early or leave their posts in favor of jobs elsewhere if the county required employees to get the shots.
The county currently requires its 9,500 employees to be vaccinated or submit weekly negative COVID-19 test results.
“I absolutely believe that all employees should be vaccinated and by the way, that is the message that the union leadership has given the employees,” Elrich said.
He added, “But if we’re not able to staff the jail fully, if we’re not able to fully staff Fire and Rescue Services … and if we can’t staff the police, then we run the risk of serious consequences.”
The report is set to be released Oct. 12. The council plans a hearing on the vaccine mandate Oct. 19.
So far, about 78% of county employees — about 7,400 employees — report that they have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
Roughly 7% of the county’s workforce — 640 employees — say they are not vaccinated. About 15% of county employees — nearly 1,400 employees — have not said either way.
Almost a third of Fire and Rescue Service employees and nearly a quarter of Department of Correction and Rehabilitation employees have not reported their status, according to a county dashboard.
Under the county’s current get-vaccinated-or-get-tested policy, officials estimate needing about 1,000 rapid COVID-19 tests per week to check that unvaccinated county employees are fit for duty.
One potential hurdle is the fact that rapid tests across the county are in relatively short supply.
“At virtually the same time we moved to a vax-or-test policy, the rapid tests vanished from store shelves,” Elrich said.
The good news is that the Biden administration says a supply boost of quick at-home tests is coming, thanks to a $1 billion federal investment and the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization this week of a new test from ACON labs.
“We’re making every effort we can to acquire them,” Elrich said. “We will crack this nut.”