As COVID-19 cases drop, Montgomery Co. leaders continue push for boosters, masks

Montgomery County, Maryland, officials announced on Wednesday that COVID-19 cases continue to drop, but cautioned residents to get boosted and to stay masked up.

The average number of cases in the last seven days stands at 220.52 per 100,000 residents, down from 553.83 on Jan. 26. And the test positivity rate has dropped from 9.04% to 4.85% in the same time.

County Executive Marc Elrich said at Wednesday’s briefing that hospitalizations are improving as well — from 550 three weeks ago to 281.

Even though the county is “on the other side of the surge,” Elrich said, the case and positivity rates are still about where they were last winter.

“Let’s be clear; this virus is still out there,” Elrich said. “And it isn’t time for us to stop using common sense.”

The numbers aren’t all good — while 84% of county residents have been fully vaccinated, just 50.3% have received a booster. And Elrich said testing was down about 50%.

Public Health Emergency Manager Sean O’Donnell said that even though the protective effect of the vaccine waned with the omicron variant, it’s still significantly effective. He added that people who are unvaccinated are 16 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 as compared to people who have been boosted.

Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said “counterproductive” messaging and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a lot to do with why relatively fewer people have gotten boosted.

“People didn’t know, is it only for seniors or immunocompromised?” Stoddard said.

He said that more people might get vaccinated if and when Rockville-based Novavax receives Food and Drug Administration approval for its vaccine; the company, which applied this week, uses an old-fashioned protein-based vaccine instead of the mRNA vaccine technology that’s left some hesitant to get vaccinated, Stoddard said.

Mask mandate to stay

While the number of COVID-19 cases has dropped, Montgomery County officials aren’t ready to drop their indoor mask mandate like neighboring Howard and Anne Arundel counties, which lifted the requirement earlier this week.

“I’m glad that the District and Prince George’s County, like us, are being more prudent and continuing it a little bit longer,” Elrich said. The county’s mask mandate is in effect through Feb. 21.

Montgomery County Deputy Health Officer Dr. James Bridgers said the key to getting to the point of dropping mask mandates was getting more people vaccinated.

“It’s not just a one-and-done or a two-and-done process,” Bridgers said. “If we want to have periods where we don’t need to use masks, because our hospitals aren’t filling up, that relies on us as a population committing to maintain our level of vaccination.”

Elrich said many people get their flu vaccines, but most don’t feel it’s urgent. He drew a similarity with attitudes about boosters, and said it was a mistake.

“We’re not going to get back to normal by treating this just like the flu,” Elrich said. “This is not the flu.”

Demographic disparities

Stoddard said that though there’s not much disparity between demographic groups who have received an initial dose of the vaccine, data show that fewer Hispanic and Black county residents have received the booster as compared to other racial groups.

Kids under 5 could soon be given the green light for getting vaccinated, and Bridgers said once that happens, the county expects to vaccinate around 59,000 children and has begun plotting a strategy for vaccinating that group, which Bridgers said will mirror approaches used with vaccinating kids 5 to 11.

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.

Jessica Kronzer

Jessica Kronzer graduated from James Madison University in May 2021 after studying media and politics. She enjoys covering politics, advocacy and compelling human-interest stories.

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