Latest COVID-19 surge brings hospitalizations up in Montgomery Co., but not yet at capacity

Courtesy Montgomery County Health

Hospitals in Montgomery County, Maryland, are seeing more COVID-19 patients, but they haven’t been as overwhelmed as the rising case numbers would suggest.

Sean O’Donnell, the county’s public health emergency preparedness manager, said Wednesday that 362 of Maryland’s over 2,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations are attributable to Montgomery County.

“There still is significant capacity within the hospitals, but the number of COVID cases is increasing,” O’Donnell said, adding that the positivity rate is the highest the county has seen since May 2020.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich reported that the case rate in Montgomery County is eight times higher — 649 cases per 100,000 residents — than it was at the beginning of the month. He said that the numbers in this surge are reminiscent of the one experienced during last winter.

Elrich also reported that the Omicron variant is making up 58% of all cases in the Mid-Atlantic, which is currently the nation’s hotspot in terms of COVID case numbers.

The good news, Elrich said, is that the county’s high vaccination rate is factoring into milder symptoms for those who do catch the virus. As it stands now, 72% of county residents are fully vaccinated and over 80% have received one dose.

Medical experts at the briefing pointed to strong vaccination numbers as to why short-staffed hospitals haven’t been hit as hard by the current spike in cases.

For example, about 50% of the people coming to Holy Cross hospitals with a fever, cough or respiratory difficulties are testing positive for COVID, according to the hospital system’s Medical Director Dr. Ann Burke.

She added that about 18% of those COVID patients are getting admitted to the hospital because they have moderate illness or greater. And of those admitted, Burke said that even fewer have severe illness, with 6% of COVID patients needing to go on a ventilator.

Courtesy Montgomery County Health

Some of the county’s exploding case numbers come from people discovering they have the virus  after going to the hospital for a non-COVID related reason.

These “incidental positives,” as the county’s Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Earl Stoddard called them, are inflating the numbers of the cases, along with the county’s expansive testing regime at the public and private levels.

Incidental positives can factor into the rising hospitalization rates as well, Stoddard told WTOP.

But he said the way those are counted are a judgment call by the medical professional assessing the patient and determining if COVID-19 is what is requiring them to stay at the hospital.

Still, Elirch is bracing for more unwelcome news to come from this surge.

“We expect these numbers to get worse before they get better,” Elrich said.

“It’s important to note that our residents should not seek routine COVID-19 testing at our hospitals or emergency rooms. Not only does it harm their ability to provide service, but also sitting in a hospital emergency room like right now would not be the safest place to be unless you’re actually looking to get a case of COVID,” he continued.

Elrich said he hopes that Gov. Larry Hogan will reinstate the public health emergency that the state’s hospital association is calling for, which would address shortcomings in health care staffing.

Montgomery County will also address how to handle its mask mandate at the Board of Health meeting on Jan. 4.

The key metric to drop the mask mandate is have 85% of the population receives one dose of the vaccine.

Meanwhile, Stoddard told WTOP that the vaccine requirement for bars and restaurants will be discussed during the county council’s regular meeting on Jan. 11.

Stoddard said that the legislation could go one of two ways — it could be expedited and effective by Jan. 11, or if it’s standard legislation, it will be introduced on that day, followed by subsequent hearings for public comment and then a formal vote at a later date.

While the base version of the vaccine mandate won’t require someone to have received their booster dose, Stoddard said that hasn’t been ruled out as a possibility later on. O’Donnell said that a little shy of 50% of all eligible booster recipients have received their third dose.

As for the spike in cases among Montgomery County’s Fire and EMS, Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said that 80% of those who tested positive had been fully vaccinated. The outbreak has caused a 9% reduction in emergency services staff, according to Elrich.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

Matthew Delaney

Matt Delaney is a digital web writer/editor who joined WTOP in 2020.

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