Montgomery County lawmakers in Maryland voted unanimously Tuesday to keep the county’s indoor mask mandate in place at least until the end of the month, as the county sees an astronomical rise in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant that is leading to soaring hospitalizations and disrupting critical county operations.
The prior health order, approved by the county council acting as the board of health in early November when coronavirus infections in the county were on a downward swing, would have terminated the indoor mask mandate when 85% of county residents had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The highly-vaccinated county is quickly approaching that target at 83%.
“We have to acknowledge the reality on the ground,” Council President Gabe Albornoz said ahead of the vote. “The governor just issued a state of emergency because of what we are seeing. We are experiencing just extraordinarily difficult personnel issues. And the next couple of weeks are going to be critically important for us to stop the bleeding as much as we can.”
An initial version of the new mask order would have kept the mandate in place indefinitely. However, under an amendment from Council member Andrew Friedson, the mandate will terminate Jan. 31 — the same date an indoor face covering requirement in D.C. is set to expire.
The measure requires the council to sit as the board of health every two weeks to review coronavirus-related data.
“I think it is important that emergency powers have a termination and we meet on a regular basis to analyze the data and to make determinations on when how they should proceed … I think this allows us to be transparent and accountable,” Friedson said.
The vote on the amendment was also unanimous.
The action by the county council came the same day Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan activated the National Guard and declared a 30-day state of emergency, citing a 500% jump in hospitalizations statewide over the past month and half, reaching the highest level of the nearly two-year-old pandemic and straining hospital resources across the state.
Earlier Tuesday, the school system also announced 11 schools — out of 209 in the school system — would transition to virtual learning for the next 14 days because of high COVID rates.
In a brief round of public comments ahead of the council vote, eight county residents testified about the extended mask order, with all but one speaker opposing the extension.
Cases, hospitalizations steeply rise
Montgomery County has seen skyrocketing COVID-19 case rates over the past few weeks.
A transmission rate above 100 cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days is classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as high transmission.
Last fall, the county’s transmission rate had dipped below 50 cases per 100,000 residents. During last winter’s case surge, the peak was just under 350 cases. The case rate now is just under 1,600 cases per 100,000 people.
“Our transmission rate continues to shoot almost directly straight up,” Sean O’Donnell, public health emergency preparedness with the county health department, said Tuesday morning.
The test positivity rate — meaning the percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive results — is now 25% in Montgomery County and 26% statewide. That means roughly one in every four people getting tested in the county are getting back positive results.
“A lot of the reports are that the omicron cases are not causing as severe illness,” O’Donnell said. “And that does seem to be the case, although with the incredibly high rates we’re seeing, it’s still contributing to increased number of COVID individuals in our hospitals.”
As of Tuesday, 459 people in Montgomery County are hospitalized with COVID, according to county data, which is near an all-time pandemic high. Overall, 28.3% of hospital beds are occupied with COVID-19 patients — compared to less than 10% last fall.
O’Donnell said some of the hospitalizations are “incidental” cases, meaning someone is hospitalized for some other reason but tests positive in the hospital. But even a co-diagnosis of COVID can be “troubling,” O’Donnell said, and, in any case, requires hospital resources to treat.
“The hospitalization numbers are alarming, there’s no other way to slice that,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer.
Regarding all of the data pointing to a omicron surge, Council member Craig Rice said, “These numbers are off the charts.”
Expanding test capacity
County officials who appeared before the council got an earful from some council members about the county’s testing capacity, which is facing extremely high demand and complaints by some about lack of access to testing.
In response to the criticism, officials said they are planning to significantly expand testing capacity by opening a mass testing site at the Germantown campus of Montgomery County — previously a mass vaccination site — and expanding the distribution of rapid tests thanks to a big new shipment of test kits expected this week.
The county has ordered a total of 1 million rapid test kits from company iHealth — the same supplier of rapid tests in D.C. — with just under 350,000 expected to arrive by Wednesday.
Pressed by Council member Tom Hucker as to why the rapid tests weren’t available sooner, Stoddard blasted the “hodge-podge system that we have across the country right now,” for supplying rapid tests “which is a disaster.”
Stoddard said the county ordered 30,000 test kits from another supplier, Abbott, three months ago but only received 600 kits. He said Abbott representatives informed county officials that purchases by the federal government would take precedence over smaller localities.
“There’s a lot of just chaos and frustration, and anxiety” around obtaining COVID-19 testing access, especially for parents trying to test their children after winter break, Hucker said. He likened getting rapid tests to “The Hunger Games.”
Of the 346,000 new rapid tests kits expected to arrive this week, roughly 100,000 will be provided to Montgomery County Public Schools for teachers, students and staff members, while the remaining test kits will be distributed at public sites. Details on where the rapid tests will be available are expected to be announced on Wednesday.