The COVID-19 outbreak at a Montgomery County, Maryland, high school has grown.
Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville reported six additional COVID-19 cases Wednesday, according to a letter to parents from the school system. That brings the total number of COVID-19 cases reported at the school since Friday to 21 — 19 cases involve students and two involve staff members.
In the wake of the growing number of cases, the school system said the school is now pausing practices and games in its wrestling program.
On Monday, the school temporarily halted varsity and JV boys’ basketball practices and games because of the outbreak.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday during a media briefing, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer Earl Stoddard said the majority of the cases are breakthrough cases because they involve students who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
He pointed to the fact that teens were first authorized to get COVID-19 shots in May but are not currently eligible for booster doses, which are believed to boost potentially waning levels of immunity.
“You may see more breakthrough cases in that population the further out you get from their second dose, so that gets important to understand for the students, particularly the 12-to-17-year-olds who fall in that gap of … being vaccinated six months ago and not being eligible for a booster,” he said.
Booster vaccine doses are currently authorized only for adults.
The school is holding a vaccine clinic on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Rise in hospitalizations
Overall, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise across Montgomery County and so have hospitalizations, which officials say is more concerning.
Over the past month, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has doubled — from 66 to 130. That’s nearing a recent peak earlier this fall driven by the delta variant.
What’s driving the increase in hospitalizations now?
Officials said they aren’t entirely sure, but it’s likely to be a combination of factors. The uptick in hospitalizations comes amid an overall increase in cases. Another reason: Potential waning immunity from people vaccinated several months ago who haven’t yet got their booster shots.
“We just started really doing full community-wide boosting of people who have been vaccinated months and months ago,” Stoddard said. “And so we’re probably still seeing a portion of our population having a waning immunity if they haven’t been boosted yet, which is again another encouragement to come out and get boosted.”
In addition, there’s some precedent for a winter spike. Last year, the county saw a rapid rise in cases in late fall — although the rise in cases started a month earlier this year.
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“There seems to be a periodicity of how the spikes occur, and we just may be at the beginning of our next spike here,” said Sean O’Donnell, public health and emergency preparedness manager at the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
While there has been an increase in hospitalizations, levels of serious illness remain far below where they were last year at this time, when the seven-day average number of COVID-19 hospitalizations was 276.
Amid the uptick in hospitalizations, the county’s overall vaccination rate continues to climb. Montgomery County was already one of the most vaccinated counties in the U.S., and the large demand for young children ages 5 to 11 getting vaccinated has helped drive rates even further.
Under the health regulations that include the county’s much-debated mask mandate, the face covering requirement, which is currently tied to the county’s level of community transmission, is set to be rescinded entirely once 85% of county residents are fully vaccinated. As of earlier this week, a little more than 80% of residents were fully vaccinated.
Stoddard said county officials would like to have a conversation with members of the county council, who act as the board of health, before hitting the 85% threshold to consider whether the county should take a different approach.
“We want to make sure that we’re providing them the right information, so we can all be very intentional,” he said.
Officials have previously estimated the county could hit the 85% threshold in early 2022.
If hospitalization rates continue to rise and prevention measures are warranted beyond the current mask mandate, Stoddard said the county wants to avoid closures and “massive restrictions” in favor of a vaccine passport program that would require, for example, patrons to be fully vaccinated to dine out or visit other venues.
“That is probably the arena of things where, if things get worse, particularly in hospitalizations, that’s much more likely to be the things that we start to advocate and have conversations about, as opposed to broader restrictions,” Stoddard said.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said he’s not a fan of the 85% threshold after which the mask mandate would end.
“I know that people kicked it around as sort of representing herd immunity,” he said. “The problem with that theory is if you’ve got a variant that causes reinfection in the herd, then the herd’s not really immune.”
A vaccine passport approach would require a Board of Health regulation adopted by the county council. Elrich said he’s not sure the state of Maryland would go along the approach even if approved by the council. “But I think it’d be worth finding out,” he said.