Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, have formally requested the Maryland National Guard to act as bus drivers, as the state’s largest school system deals with major shortages that have disrupted the return of students from the winter break.
The county is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant, which has led to an astronomical rise in cases and record hospitalizations and led school officials to shift nearly a dozen schools to virtual learning.
Since last week, the school system has canceled dozens of daily bus routes because of a driver shortage.
The county filed a request with the National Guard to cover the school system’s transportation needs, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told members of the county council during a briefing Tuesday.
“My understanding is that the National Guard may not be able to help,” Stoddard said, but that the request has been circulated to neighboring counties through a compact of county emergency management agencies that may be able to offer help.
Stoddard said the school system’s leaders asked for the county to request the National Guard’s help with the bus driver shortage.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has already pressed the National Guard, which previously assisted with the state’s vaccination efforts, into helping stand up and staff new COVID-19 testing sites across the state.
Stoddard told council members the extremely high rates of infection associated with omicron are taking a toll on county services across the board.
“There are massive impacts that are going to be felt by omicron,” he said. “There is no papering over those. There’s no Band-Aiding them with one service into another. There’s a triage going on to figure out exactly what we can stop doing to be able to support something that’s an important service. But we are going to have a very tough next three to four weeks minimally.”
He added, “We can cover up some of the worst of the issues, but — we’re asking the National Guard to provide bus drivers. I want to let that sink in for people. That is not something we would do under normal circumstances. These are not normal times.”
School system leaders have faced a barrage of criticism over the at-times chaotic-seeming return to classes following winter break. Initially, the school system rolled out a color-coded system for tracking individual schools’ COVID-19 rates to be used to guide when schools transition to virtual learning before abandoning the plan on Friday. Instead, school officials said, they will decide to shift schools to virtual lessons on a case-by-case basis.
As much as possible, county leaders want to see students stay in classrooms rather than pivot to virtual learning, Stoddard said.
“I think we’d prefer not to make a systemwide decision. But, the staffing issues could certainly get us to a point where … under some extreme circumstances, it could become necessary,” Stoddard said.
The school system is set to hold a virtual townhall Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. during which parents can get their questions answered.
Booster rates lagging
While Montgomery County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country — with more than 83% of the total million-plus population fully vaccinated — the share of people who have received a booster dose is lagging.
Because eligibility for the doses has expanded, the share of eligible residents has fallen. As it stands now, only about 40% of Montgomery County residents who are eligible for a booster dose have received one, according to county data presented to the council.
“We have a large population of people in Montgomery County who need to be boosted, and I do think that is significantly contributing to the hospitalization rate we are seeing in the county and generally to the infection rate,” Stoddard said.
Currently, the county is seeing the most hospitalizations of the pandemic. Just over 500 people are in the hospital with COVID in Montgomery County. More than one-third of hospital beds in the county — 36% — are occupied by patients with COVID.
“While boosters are not a necessarily a full protection against infection, they will reduce” the risk, Stoddard said. “And the hospitalization data is stark. While two doses provides some level of protection, “it is likely not a sufficient level of protection for omicron.”
He pointed to recent data from the University of Maryland Medical System that showed that just 2% of its patients over the past 30 days had received a booster dose. About 24% of patients were fully vaccinated. The vast majority — 74% — were unvaccinated.
Vaccine ‘passport’ discussed
Members of the county council also discussed a proposal to require restaurants, bars, fitness centers and other businesses in the county to require patrons to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before entering indoor areas.
Under the proposal, customers would have to show proof of having received at least one dose by Jan. 22 and full vaccination, as currently defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by Feb. 15.
The proposal is modeled on a similar vaccine “passport” in D.C. that will start being enforced this weekend.
Council members had some tough questions about how the program would work and the potential on front-line restaurant staff, who would bear the burden of enforcing the mandate.
Council members also discussed whether the countywide vaccine requirement for bars and restaurants should include a requirement for people to have booster shots.
Officials said they have debated adding a booster requirement, because that could boost the lagging number of people with booster shots.
“If we’re going to do this — and it is a big if; I mean there are a lot of questions that we have to sort through here on logistics and all of it — then that is something we’re going to have to note,” Council President Gabe Albornoz said. “Otherwise this is just a symbolic gesture at best and not one that actually has true public health solidity or efficacy.”
A public hearing on the measure is expected Jan. 18.