Another winter surge? Montgomery Co. sees steep rise in COVID-19 cases in schools, rise in hospitalizations

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they are concerned about an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in the county’s schools and an overall uptick in coronavirus-hospitalizations among all residents, which has the county “headed in the wrong direction,” County Executive Marc Elrich said.

While coronavirus data provided by the state has been knocked offline for the past 10 days because of a cyberattack, Elrich said the “trickle” of information coming in on school outbreaks and hospitalizations is far from good news, even in a county with some of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

“We see that another winter surge in cases is definitely upon us,” Elrich told reporters during an online briefing Wednesday.

Data on overall case numbers and coronavirus-related deaths remain unavailable across Maryland.

Overall, school-based outbreaks across the state rose more than 40% last week, according to state data. In Montgomery County, alone, there were more than 518 reported cases linked to the school system last week. In the first 2 and 1/2 months of the school year, Montgomery County Public Schools reported just over 1,000 cases.

Many of the recent cases are tied to high schools sports teams, and the county health department and MCPS ordered a 14-day pause on high school athletics for teams with outbreaks affecting at least five people tied to the team. As of Wednesday, nine teams at four high schools had a sports team paused.

The team outbreaks have materialized even as student athletes are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to play. The winter sports season began last week.

In addition to the 14-day pause among teams experiencing outbreaks, the school system recently updated guidance to require players to wear masks on the bench and other places when they’re not actively playing.

In Howard County, Maryland, school officials Wednesday announced they are canceling all extracurricular activities through Jan. 15, citing a recent surge in cases in schools there.

But Montgomery County’s acting health officer, James Bridgers, said officials there are looking at schools on a case-by-case basis and are not yet recommending a systemwide pause on sports activity or other extracurricular activities.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard noted the rise in cases in schools comes a few weeks after Thanksgiving family gatherings and as colder weather has pushed more activities indoors.

“That combination is still going to be with us come the end-of-year holidays,” Stoddard said, “and so we’re obviously deeply concerned about what will happen in a few weeks when students return to child care and our schools.”

That said, Stoddard said there are no plans currently to recommend a return to virtual instruction.

“We’ve had no conversations with MCPS regarding any suspension or ceasing of in-person education,” Stoddard said. “That should be crystal clear.”

While the focus is on keeping kids healthy and trying to avert serious health outcomes, he said, there are serious negative outcomes to learning loss by having kids out of school that also have to be weighed.

Montgomery County begins its winter break Dec. 23.

Hospitalizations on the rise

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Regarding the rise in hospitalizations across the county, officials said the county’s hospitals are seeing increases in both acute-care beds and intensive care units.

The most recent data shows there are 177 patients with COVID-19 in county’s hospitals. That’s up from roughly 60 patients a month ago, and a level not seen since the spring.

That figure has continued to rise since mid-November, said Sean O’Donnell, with the county’s health department.

“It has plateaued for the last few days. But they have been on a trajectory of increasing.” O’Donnell said.

The county’s recent rise in hospitalizations comes as hospitals across the state are seeing a large influx of COVID-19 patients, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has ordered hospitals to prepare “surge operations.”

When overall hospitalizations in the state reach 1,200 across the state, hospitals will reschedule non-urgent procedures that would require an overnight stay to make sure enough beds are available.

The hospitalization number in Maryland currently stands at 1,151 as of Wednesday.

Stoddard said he didn’t oppose surge planning, “But I think it’s very much akin to increasing the limits of your credit card repetitively instead of understanding how you can better spend your resources,” he said, adding that they should consider other preventive measures to control the spread of COVID-19 that don’t only place the burden on an already overtaxed hospital system.

Renewed concern about the spread of COVID-19 comes as the county approaches a milestone in its vaccination.

As it stands now, roughly 82% of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated. When that hits 85%, the county’s existing health regulations — approved in November by the county council acting as the board of health — are set to be rescinded entirely, which would do away with the county’s indoor mask mandate.

Officials requested a meeting with the board of health — set for Jan. 4 — to discuss keeping the mask mandate but tie it to different data.

There are a range of data points the county could consider instead of case rates and vaccination rates, both of which factor into the mask mandate currently, including looking at hospitalization data.

Ultimately, “it will be the prerogative of the county council sitting as the board of health to make this determination,” Stoddard said, referring to any changes to the mask mandate.


More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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