Montgomery County, Maryland, will hand out 4 million N95 face masks at public libraries throughout the county starting this Friday, officials announced — a move that comes at the same time the county is facing a severe supply crunch for COVID-19 rapid test kits.
The masks will be handed out at 19 library branches, including 10 locations with evening and weekend hours. The county said the masks are intended for county residents, and each visitor will be limited to four masks.
The announcement from the county comes the same day the White House says the federal government plans to hand out 400 million N95 masks starting next week at pharmacies and community health centers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently emphasized that N95 and KN95 masks offer better protection against the omicron variant of the coronavirus than cloth masks.
The county’s masks, which are ZYB-11 brand 95 masks and only for adult use, come from its stockpile of personal protective equipment, Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told reporters during a weekly online media briefing.
Last week, the county began handing out free COVID-19 rapid test kits at the same 19 library branches, which saw huge demand and long, although quickly moving, lines.
Now, officials say a late shipment and competition with the federal government for supplies could hinder the county’s rapid test kit distribution efforts.
“We have seen a significant slowdown in our deliveries of rapid tests kits,” Stoddard said Wednesday.
In fact, the county’s test coffers are basically empty, and officials are still waiting on a shipment of 196,000 kits that was supposed to be shipped last week, Stoddard said. The county is now hoping to receive the shipment by this weekend, he said.
Library branches still have supplies on hand to distribute, but there aren’t enough supplies for community center and other community partners. “We have essentially zero test kits in our warehouse for the remainder of the week,” Stoddard said.
He added, “Until we receive that next shipment, we’re left in a significant bind.”
Faced with huge demand for rapid tests amid the omicron-driven surge in cases and a scattershot, patchwork supply chain and distribution network for the test kits, county officials earlier this month announced plans to hand out the test kits at libraries.
Overall, the county has ordered a total 2 million rapid test kits and has already received and distributed more than 792,000 kits — including 240,000 kits that have been supplied to Montgomery County Public Schools.
According to Stoddard, the county has been informed by the test distributor iHealth that the U.S. Defense Department placed a massive order for 200 million rapid test kits, including 20 million kits upfront — and the federal government’s orders typically go to the front of the line.
Earlier this week, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight appeared before the county council, sitting as the board of health, and formally requested the county commit to providing 190,000 rapid test kits every two weeks — which is enough tests for all students, teachers and staff, including substitute teachers.
Stoddard said the county would continue supplying test kits to the school system but said, given the supply challenges, they were looking to “right-size” the request and suggested the school system wouldn’t receive the full requested amount.
He said some parents have managed to secure their own supply of rapid tests and don’t necessarily need the school system to send home a weekly rapid test.
“We want them obviously to focus the test kits on those communities that do not have … ready access to rapid test kits,” Stoddard said.
A separate request of the school system to have the county health department take over the contact tracing of COVID-19 cases in the school system to free up teachers and administrators who have been overwhelmed with the duty.
Stoddard said the county would be providing additional help, but that school personnel are the best positioned to help identify students who were in close contact to a confirmed positive COVID case.
“They will still have to be involved in that front-end process,” Stoddard said of school staff. “There’s no way around that.
COVID-19 cases on the decline; Elrich predicts ‘tough vote’ on vaccine passport
After a few weeks of soaring COVID-19 cases, the county is now seeing an across-the-board drop in several indicators.
The test positivity rate — the percentage of COVID tests coming back positive — remains high but has fallen from 27% on Jan. 5 to 17% currently.
The current case rate is also still high at nearly 1,200 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. However, that’s a 44% drop from the more than 2,100 cases per 100,000 residents on Jan. 9.
“These numbers are going in the right direction,” County Executive Marc Elrich said. “They’re still among the highest rates we’ve seen throughout the pandemic and over eight times higher than they were at the beginning of the month. Getting lower numbers is a good thing …The bottom line is we still have a long way to go to get back to where we were just a very short time ago.”
Hospitalization rate are also falling, although more slowly.
Elrich said he supported the school system’s recent move to transition 16 schools to virtual learning because of staff shortages and COVID-19 case rates at those schools.
The county executive also defended a proposal to require restaurants, bars and fitness centers to check customers’ vaccine cards before they enter the premises.
The proposal got some pushback Tuesday during a Montgomery County Council meeting when groups representing businesses and restaurants said the measure would be too difficult to implement.
Elrich said the proposal is a common-sense measure to reduce COVID transmission rates.
“The goal of the bill is to require that the people that come into the business are already vaccinated to help minimize the spread among the rest of the population,” Elrich said. “That’s it. No closures, no shutdowns, none of that stuff.”
Still, he predicted a “tough vote for the council,” but said he hoped they voted to approve the measure.