Tests, vaccines, wastewater surveillance: Montgomery Co. preps for next possible COVID wave

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations remain extremely low in Montgomery County, Maryland, but with a more infectious strain of the virus driving rising case numbers in Europe, officials are making plans to make sure “we’re ready for a surge.”

Speaking during an online briefing with reporters, Assistant Chief Administrator Earl Stoddard said vaccinations — including increasing a lagging booster rate — and continuing to provide free COVID-19 test kits are key parts of the prep work.

Free rapid COVID-19 tests and N95 masks are available at county libraries. Earlier this month, the county also rolled out drop-off PCR tests at sites across the county, including recreation centers.

In addition, the county continues to hold vaccination clinics and is already making plans to expand those operations if and when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approves boosters for young children or if a fourth booster dose is approved for adults.

Also on the county’s radar is rolling out a wastewater surveillance program that aims to quickly detect the presence of the virus in communities. Stoddard said the county is in talks with the University of Maryland and the WSSC water utility to roll it out. Similar efforts are underway in D.C. and throughout Virginia.

For now, the county is monitoring data from nursing, homes and assisted living facilities — where early outbreaks are often the first to arise.

“We saw, during omicron, the numbers go up significantly” before the broader, community surge, said Sean O’Donnell, with Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.

Those are the same kind of environments where public health officials would likely target new health recommendations, O’Donnell said.

“This would very likely be guidance pushed out by public health to these different groups … the first step would not be a universal mandate, it would be the guidance is pushed out to the groups at greatest risk,” he said.

Relaxed COVID-19 guidance

The county’s indoor mask mandate for public places, such as restaurants, gyms and stores, was rescinded last month.

Scientists say the U.S. could see an uptick in COVID-19 cases, given the more infectious BA. 2 sub-variant.

So far, according to the CDC, the sub-variant accounts for about 30% of COVID cases in the broader region, which includes D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. That’s slightly below the national average of 35%.

“If we ignore this new sub-variant and think the pandemic is over, and not get regularly tested and refuse to get vaccinated or boosted, then we should expect and be prepared for another surge and the possibility of straining our health care system,” County Executive Marc Elrich said.

Compared to earlier in the pandemic, “we’re in a different place, and we can keep people safe, and the first line of protection is getting vaccinated.”

As it stands now, cases and hospitalizations remain very low. As of Thursday, just 2% of hospital beds in the county are occupied by COVID patients, and there is not a single COVID patient in intensive care in the county.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous, achieved one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S.

Overall, more than 95% of residents have received at least one dose and 85% are fully vaccinated. But the percentage of vaccinated residents who have received a booster dose is just 56%. And there are stark racial gaps when it comes to boosters.

The percentage of white residents who have received boosters is 71%, compared to 50% of Black residents and just 44% of Hispanic residents.

Officials said Wednesday the lower booster rate among Black residents likely contributed to the significantly higher rate of hospitalization during the omicron surge of Black residents in the county.

“During the peak of the omicron surge, black Montgomery County residents were three times more likely to be hospitalized by COVID,” Elrich said.

Dr. Katherine Kelly, an internal medicine specialist in Silver Spring and a member of the Black Physicians and Health Care Network, said she still sees vaccine hesitancy “and some mistrust historically of medications or medical providers” among her patients.

Social media is a big source of the misinformation, Kelly said.

“I tell them, ‘I don’t argue with adults.’ I’m going to give you the information, I want you to trust me. If you trust me to be your physician, I also want you to trust me that I’m going to give you that information. And I also try to break it down with the facts.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated where drop-off PCR tests are offered. It has been corrected and updated. 

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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