Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, said on Thursday they expect the county’s indoor mask mandate to expire Feb. 21 in light of improving COVID metrics, but that masking in schools is a separate decision governed by the Maryland State Department of Education.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan asked the state Board of Education on Thursday to end its mask requirement for schools, arguing there was “growing consensus among medical professionals, parents and bipartisan state officials” for dropping the policy.
But Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said that would be premature.
“He can say whatever he wants, but I think he would serve us all better if he was a little bit more patient about it and got us at least into the moderate transmission range,” Elrich said during his weekly COVID-19 meeting with county officials on Thursday.
Elrich pointed out that despite the recent sharp decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the county, as well as the state, are still in high transmission — a level that in the past triggered additional restrictions, not fewer ones. High transmission is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as 100 or more cases per 100,000 people, or a positivity rate of 10% or higher in the past seven days.
“So I don’t understand what logically has changed if high transmission was deemed to be too high level of spread to have taken protections off and actually triggered protections,” Elrich said, adding that every time Hogan loosened restrictions, cases went up.
“I don’t believe anybody will be unduly harmed by waiting another couple of weeks and wearing a mask. I haven’t been harmed in two years of wearing a mask and I don’t know anybody really who has,” Elrich said.
He added that he hopes Hogan will “give the school systems latitude to make their own decisions. I would’ve been happier if he’d just said any school system that hits moderate can take [masks] off, and that way different schools can hit it at different times.”
But Elrich said he’s confident the county is heading in the right direction. “The trends are very good. We are likely to be out of high transmission in the not-too-distant future.”
Continuing to encourage people to get booster shots is key to achieving that metric, Elrich said, including teens who are now eligible for boosters. Also important is vaccinating younger children.
On that note, Sean O’Donnell, Montgomery County’s public health emergency manager, said county officials participated in a nationwide call with Pfizer and the CDC Wednesday night to get an update on a possible Pfizer vaccine for children younger than 5.
He said the Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to look at the data on the vaccine Feb. 15, “and we’ve been notified that we may receive shipments of vaccine as early as the week of Feb. 21” if it receives emergency use authorization.
“We are still in the midst of doing vaccinations for our 5- to 11-year-olds. We are still seeing them come in, but at slower rates,” O’Donnell said. That’s why county officials are urging parents to get their children vaccinated and, if eligible, boosted because it “helps us keep kids in school, it reduces the transmission, it reduces the amount of time that you need to be quarantined or isolated.”
O’Donnell said the number of children ages 5 to 11 who’ve received at least one dose of the vaccine is in the upper 60th percentile, while more than 50% of that age group are fully vaccinated.
Montgomery County as a whole is one of the most-vaccinated counties in the nation, with nearly 85% of its residents fully vaccinated.
But Elrich noted that only 50% of residents have received a booster shot and the county is seeing the number of boosters being administered going down. He also pointed out that boosters among Black and Latino populations remain lower than for white residents and that 25% of residents 65 and older — a high-risk group — still aren’t boosted.
“And this is an important thing we need to emphasize: The vaccines worked, but the vaccines also wear off after a while. And if you got your two vaccines, you did what we thought you needed to do. That’s great. But as your immunity wanes, you need to get a booster vaccine and that is the only way you can be protected from more severe outcomes of COVID,” Elrich said, noting that the county is holding another “boosterama” event on Saturday Feb. 19, at Westfield Wheaton Mall from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Elrich said the omicron variant took a huge toll on the county, with more COVID deaths recorded in January — 145 — than the previous six months combined.
Since then, however, the number of COVID cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days has dropped from a high of nearly 1,750 in early January to 125 as of Wednesday.
But the county executive urged everyone to be cautious.
“This week, our nation marked another grim milestone. We have lost 900,000 Americans because it took our nation only 50 days to register 100,000 deaths, after it took 75 days to go from 700,000 to 800,000. This is due to the omicron variant and the strains on our health systems. These are sobering numbers in an unnecessary tragedy,” Elrich said.
“The country did not respond the way it should have to this virus from the onset, and we continue to have a significant portion of our population not believing in data, science and facts, leading to bad health practices and poor decision-making,” he added. “Stunningly, after having the vaccine available, 35.8% of our nation remains unvaccinated. So many of these deaths could have been preventable if more people would have been vaccinated.”
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