An uptick in COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County, Maryland, is lasting longer than health officials initially thought it would.
COVID-19 cases in Maryland’s most populous county have been on the rise since late March. But while officials once described the uptick as a “wavelet,” it’s proving to be more persistent than they thought.
Still, even with the rise in cases, rates of serious illness requiring hospitalization remain very low.
In contrast to the massive COVID spike driven by the omicron variant last winter, cases this time around are rising more slowly.
“Certainly the level of immunity in our community, both gained through infection during the first omicron spike and conferred through the high rate of vaccination in our county, is helping to slow the spread and make it not as sharp as that previous spike — but it appears to be elongating it,” said Sean O’Donnell, with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, at an online briefing with reporters Wednesday.
Currently, the level of COVID spread in the county is categorized as being “medium,” because the county has seen more than 200 cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days. The current figure is 261, a figure not seen since late January. Still, it’s far below the omicron peak of more than 1,700 cases per 100,000 residents in a week.
O’Donnell said modeling indicates cases will continue to climb and that it’ll be at least another week or so before cases start to fall.
“This is, again, where modeling is,” O’Donnell said. “I would love to be wrong on that, and it starts to turn around tomorrow.”
With the ongoing wave of cases, officials emphasize that residents consider their personal level of risk when considering wearing face coverings in indoor settings and other measures.
“If you have a family member who is immunocompromised, if you yourself are immunocompromised, if you have concerns about underlying health conditions of any kind, this is probably the time where you should be more prudent about the activities you participate in the things,” said Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer of the county.
He added, “The endemic portion of this pandemic does not mean we ignore COVID and pretend it doesn’t exist. It means we modulate our behaviors and our responses to case rates based on our own individual or personal risk.”
The good news is that even with the current rise in cases, hospitalizations are not expected to rise high enough to reach the “high” threshold set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Currently, only about 4.2% of staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients. It would have to rise to 10% to trigger the “high” category.
O’Donnell said officials don’t expect that to happen with the latest surge.
“None of our models really has us getting close to that level,” he said.
In addition, COVID cases in intensive care remain “very, very low,” O’Donnell said. “Many of these hospitalizations appear to be turning over more quickly than they did in previous waves where individuals were having more significant illness that was progressing to in some cases intensive care.”
County officials look to other communities, in Europe and in the U.S., to get insight into how a COVID uptick could play out in the D.C. area. But officials say COVID is getting harder to predict with so many competing variants.
“We’re actually seeing a wave that is not necessarily a single variant,” said Stoddard, pointing to the various subvariants of the omicron strain, including the BA. 2.12.1 subvariant, which is making up a rapidly growing share of U.S. COVID infections nationwide.
He added, “Our projections of how things are going to evolve need to incorporate some of the uncertainty associated with the fact that the virus is evolving to become a more efficient infector of human beings.”