Amid a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Montgomery County, Maryland, and across the state, county officials plan to meet in the next several weeks to discuss pandemic safety measures, including mask mandates.
The county board of health, which comprises the nine-member Montgomery County Council, plans to meet at some point before the end of the recess on Jan. 11, Council President Gabe Albornoz said during an online briefing with reporters Monday.
At the top of the agenda: The county’s current COVID-19 regulations, including a much-debated mask mandate, are set to be rescinded entirely once 85% of the county’s entire population is fully vaccinated. That mandate applies to all indoor public spaces, including businesses, but not to schools, which fall under the purview of the county’s Board of Education.
As it stands now, just under 82% of the county’s entire population is fully vaccinated, and officials have previously said they expect the county to hit the 85% threshold in early 2022.
But that would mean the county — which has taken a more cautious approach throughout the pandemic — would be lifting its mask mandate amid a potential post-holiday winter surge in cases and just as the region sees its first cases from the omicron variant.
“We obviously have our eyes wide open to both omicron … and the fact that the delta variant has not left us,” Albornoz said. “We will make sure we are nimble and make adjustments as necessary.”
Last week, county officials suggested retooling the current health metrics to focus on hospitalizations as opposed to vaccination rates, or to adopt a vaccine passport that would require people to show proof of vaccination to dine out, for example.
Another potential change the county council may consider: The definition of “fully vaccinated” with the introduction of booster shots.
“At some point, it’s likely that the CDC is going to change what they consider to be fully vaccinated to include boosters, which hasn’t yet happened,” Albornoz said. “But I think given the variants and what we’re seeing, that that’s also something to consider on the horizon as well — which just underscores why it will be important for us to convene again, sitting as the board of health with further information in real time.”
Sean O’Donnell, public health emergency preparedness manager at the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said the county has seen a significant increase in hospitalizations recently.
“This had been relatively stable for a number of weeks, and what we’ve seen over the last week and a half is those numbers are starting to climb,” O’Donnell said.
Currently, 141 people in the county are hospitalized with COVID-19 — more than double the 66 from a month ago.
However, hospitals in the county are still far from being overwhelmed, and the county is well-positioned to prepare for an influx of patients, O’Donnell said.
“We’re not concerned with where we are today. We, of course, are looking down the line if these rates continue: What’s the impact there?”
Hospitalizations are up all across Maryland. There are currently more than 1,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Maryland hospitals — the highest number since late April.
Last week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered hospitals to update their emergency planning measures, such as considering postponing nonessential procedures.
Well more than half the hospitalized patients in Montgomery County are unvaccinated, O’Donnell said.
“We just want to keep stressing how important it is for people to get their first and second dose,” he added. “I know a lot of people are coming out and getting their boosters now and we’re … very happy to see that as well. But we want to continue having those dialogues with members of our community who haven’t gotten fully vaccinated because that is one of the primary ways this is spreading.”
About 242,000 people in Montgomery County have gotten their booster shot, which O’Donnell estimated is roughly half of those eligible.