‘Running on empty’ — Montgomery Co. bus driver woes, COVID-19 hospital crunch continue

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say the state has told them no state resources are available to fill their request for scores of bus drivers as the school system deals with major driver shortages amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

At the request of Montgomery County Public Schools, the county submitted a request to the Maryland Emergency Management Department last week seeking 200 bus drivers. That request sought any available state resources, including from neighboring counties as well as the Maryland National Guard, county officials said.

“Unfortunately, no resources are available,” Montgomery County Executive Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday during an online briefing with reporters.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard, who first revealed the request for state resources during a Montgomery County Council meeting Tuesday, also clarified the timeline of the request.

Stoddard said the request for state resources was made though the Maryland Emergency Management Agency on Jan. 6, which is the customary process, and included National Guard support. It was not a direct request of the Guard.

Stoddard said the Maryland Emergency Management Department told him on Monday that no state resources were available, and in a conversation Tuesday with Maryland Department of Emergency Management Secretary Russell Strickland, he was told the Guard is already tasked with standing up new COVID-19 testing operations across the state.

The request for resources is now being circulated to other counties, but Stoddard said he’s not all that hopeful, since many other counties are facing critical staff shortages.

“We didn’t feel like it was likely that the state would be able to support us, and … I think it’s less likely that other counties will fulfill this, but obviously have to ask,” Stoddard said.

“We’re running on empty, and now there’s a variant that’s far more transmissible. So … you can’t go back to the well for additional resources in most cases.”

Hospitals in ‘bad shape’

Amid the current surge in cases, officials said hospitals in the county are under strain.

There are currently 560 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the county — the highest number in the nearly two-year-old pandemic. Another hospital metric — the percentage of hospital beds used by COVID-19 patients — is at 36.2%, near the record.

But the challenges facing hospitals goes beyond the metrics, officials said.

“The hospitals are in fairly bad shape, and there’s no one number you can look at that sums up the story,” Stoddard said. “They’re being crunched in multiple different directions,” including staffing shortages, which limit the ability to provide care on top of the large number of COVID-related hospitalizations.

Even if someone goes to the hospital for a different reason and winds up testing positive for COVID in the hospital, that still takes up medical resources. Ambulances sometimes have to wait several hours before transported patients can be admitted.

“There are people being impacted today, in Montgomery County, based on reduced health care capability driven in large part by a large number of people in hospitals and a large number of providers who are themselves sick, or caring for somebody sick,” Stoddard said.

Rapid test distribution

This week marked the first mass distribution of at-home rapid tests to country residents. The county is handing out the free test kits at public libraries.

Overall, the county has ordered more than 2 million rapid tests kits, and several hundred thousand have already arrived.

More than 128,000 test kits were handed out the first two days of the distribution effort, officials said.

Officials are asking people not to hoard tests and to report their tests results — positive and negative — on a new online portal.

Reporting results from rapid kits — which otherwise would be unknown — “gives public health an idea of the disease load throughout our community,” said Sean O’Donnell, the public health emergency preparedness manager for the county’s health department. “It lets us know geographically where this is occurring and … if it’s disproportionately hitting populations.”


More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.


Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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