Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are planning to significantly ramp up COVID-19 testing, including distributing rapid at-home test kits at public libraries, as the county grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant.
The county is expecting a shipment of just under 400,000 rapid at-home COVID-19 test kits this week — nearly half slotted for use by Montgomery County Public Schools to aid in returning students and teachers to the classroom after a COVID infection.
While details are still to be worked out, county officials said Wednesday there are also plans to distribute at-home test kits to community partners and at libraries around the county.
Officials are bracing for high demand.
“I expect you’re going to see long lines, because people want these,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, during a weekly media briefing with reporters.
Overall, the county has ordered more than 1 million rapid tests.
Stoddard said the idea is to model the rapid-test program on a similar effort in D.C. — which has seen extremely high demand — and that the county would likely limit test kits to county residents.
“Our goal is to have these as frequently as possible, make them available through methods beyond just the library system, get them out through their community partners to people who can’t come into the library system,” Stoddard said. “We’re trying to make a plethora of different opportunities for people to get these kits available to them, such that we can really quickly get through that phase of where they’re viewed as a commodity.”
In addition, county officials are working with the state to stand up a mass testing site, likely at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College, which is expected to be up and running in the next few days.
“One of the key objectives is to try to reduce the number of people who are going to our hospital emergency departments for testing,” said Sean O’Donnell of the county health department. “And again we want to reiterate: If the only thing you need is a test, do not go to the hospital emergency departments, please.”
Planning for the mass testing site is still underway, but it could involve the assistance of the Maryland National Guard, O’Donnell said. The tests offered at the mass site are expected to be PCR tests, which must be sent off to a lab and typically return results in 48 hours or so; the tests would be supplied the state.
Rapid COVID-19 tests have been in extremely high demand as the omicron variant rages through the D.C. area, quickly disappearing from store shelves. D.C. rolled out its rapid test distribution program before Christmas, and it has drawn large crowds to libraries.
Montgomery County has been slower to obtain rapid tests.
At a board of health meeting Tuesday, Stoddard blasted a “hodgepodge system” across the country for obtaining rapid tests and called it a “national failure.”
Montgomery Co. executive recovering
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who announced New Year’s Day he had tested positive for the virus, addressed reporters during the online briefing.
Speaking from home with a gravelly voice and, at times, coughing, Elrich said he was recovering from the worst of his symptoms, which included a “serious” sore throat and extreme fatigue.
Elrich, who had received his booster shot prior to his infection, said his symptoms were not “the biggest thing” and proof the vaccines work.
“It’s true, absolutely, there are breakthroughs, but the breakthroughs do not produce the same kind of illness that you get when you are unvaccinated,” Elrich said.
He pointed to recent data from the University of Maryland Medical System showing that over the past 30 days, 74% of the system’s hospitalized patients were unvaccinated, while 24% were fully vaccinated. Just 2% of hospitalized patients had received their booster doses, according to the data.
The county’s case numbers have risen practically off-the-charts, and hospitalizations are also on the rise.
“It’s a crisis, there’s no dressing it up, and we’re treating it as such in this county,” Elrich said.
He applauded the county council for extending the indoor mask mandate, at least until Jan. 31.
“I want to remind everybody that, you know, the focus on mask mandates is not to close businesses. It’s actually keep businesses open,” Elrich said. “We’re trying to make the spaces that everybody wants to return to as safe as possible.”