Montgomery County, Maryland, is seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, but officials are hoping the county’s high rate of vaccinations and a swift effort to get shots in the arms of young children will keep the uptick in check.
This week, the county received its largest shipment yet of pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine — 23,100 doses — according to Sean O’Donnell, with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services
The new shipment, nearly twice as much as past shipments, will be put to use in county-run clinics this week, O’Donnell said during a virtual briefing with reporters hosted by Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker.
Last year, the county also saw a surge in cases between the holidays, believed to be tied to family gatherings, but the current uptick is much smaller for now.
Overall, the county’s level of community transmission was more than 98 cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days — just below the limit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “high” transmission of the virus. That’s up sharply from a month ago, when the seven-day total was about 49 cases per 100,000 residents.
Still, last year at this time, the seven-day total was more than 233 cases per 100,00 residents
“We’re hoping that we can keep this peak as low as possible, but we do anticipate it will continue to go up,” O’Donnell said.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths in the county remain low.
In the month since Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine was authorized for children ages 5 to 11, more than 34,000 young children in Montgomery County have received their shots, an estimated 35% of the total young children in the county.
O’Donnell said there has been high demand among parents in the county, prompting the county to only offer appointment-based clinics and leading the county to basically use up all its weekly allotment of vaccine doses by the end of each week.
County health officials had been pushing for larger shipments of pediatric vaccine doses for the past few weeks, arguing they were more efficient at getting their doses out.
At one point, county-run clinics were responsible for 80% of the total pediatric vaccine doses administered; it’s now around 40%.
O’Donnell said health officials are expecting the demand to wane a bit in the coming weeks.
“But it offers us some other opportunities,” he said, “such as the ability to hold walkup vaccinations at kids’ clinics, so we don’t have to worry about turning people away because of the amount of vaccine we have. And so we are looking forward to doing that in the near future.”
The county has also distributed 214,000 additional doses — both third doses for the immunocompromised and booster doses. Last month, federal health officials recommended booster shots for all U.S. adults.
As it stands now, more than 93% of county residents older than 12 are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, and slightly more than 80% of all residents are fully vaccinated.
The county’s much-discussed and -debated indoor mask mandate — which is set to automatically turn on and off based on the county’s transmission level — will be rescinded for good once the overall vaccination rate hits 85%, according to the current Board of Health regulation.
Based on current trends, the county could hit that milestone by year’s end or slightly after. With concerns about the potential spread of the omicron variant, county lawmakers say they’re monitoring the situation closely.
“It’s something that we need to keep in mind,” said Montgomery County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz during the briefing. “We don’t want it to cause an unreasonable amount of alarm. We do have extraordinarily high vaccination rates, our hospitalization rates have remained low … There are no plans to deviate from the plan at this point.”
Late last week, Maryland reported its first three cases of the omicron variant of the virus, all in the Baltimore area. It’s still unclear whether the variant, which was first detected in South Africa in late November and appears to have spread around the globe, is more contagious or leads to more serious illness.