Montgomery Co. recommends masks again with COVID surge ‘lasting longer than expected’

Residents in Montgomery County, Maryland, are being urged to wear masks when indoors, to get tested for COVID-19 when returning from gatherings or travel and to make sure they’re up to date on their vaccinations, including booster shots.

“Our current surge in cases is lasting longer than expected, which leaves more people at-risk of being exposed to COVID-19,” County Executive Marc Elrich said in a statement Tuesday.

It’s not a mandate, but the wearing of masks indoors in public places is “strongly recommended” based on advice from county health officials.

“The decision was made to remind folks that there is still a virus out here, it is still contagious, and that there are some people for whom this might still be a serious and potentially life-threatening illness,” said Raymond Crowel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview with WTOP.

On Monday, Sean O’Donnell, the public health emergency preparedness manager for the health department, told reporters that the most recent models show case numbers are expected to keep rising for the next two to three weeks.

According to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard, the number of cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days is 340 cases — up significantly from the roughly 33 cases per 100,000 residents recorded in mid-March.

Hospitalization rates remain low but are also on the rise.

Currently, 5.6% of staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients. That’s far fewer than the nearly 50% hospitalization rate at the height of the omicron surge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers 10% a sign of concern.

“I know we are all tired of this virus” Elrich said in the statement, “but the virus is not tired of us.”

Crowel said the county’s recommendation is designed to provide information to the public, saying “we’re not at a panic level, obviously.”

He added, “We’re not overly anxious about this but we are watching it, and if it continues to go up, we will continue to issue guidance to the public,” he said.

Based on modeling and projections, officials are hopeful they’ll see a downturn in cases soon. “But that is a projection. And it is a little bit like forecasting the weather three weeks out.”

Montgomery County businesses can continue to require customers to wear masks indoors.

Recently, Prince George’s County issued recommendations similar to those made by Montgomery County due to a surge in cases.

Montgomery County is also “strongly” recommending that “front-facing” employees who have not received their boosters wear masks. The same advice is being given to those who visit county government offices.

The recommendations follow the news that Montgomery County’s efforts to hire a county health officer have once again failed.

On Monday, Crowel wrote to County Council President Gabe Albornoz to let the council know the latest candidate had withdrawn from consideration for “personal” reasons. This is the third time a candidate has backed out of the job, which has been vacant since September.

Crowel told WTOP he was “particularly frustrated” that this candidate backed out of the running.

He said the candidate backed out for personal reasons and had other job offers he was contemplating.

“The reality is that in many cases it’s come down to, ‘Do I take on a job that is as intense and as challenging as being a health officer? Or do I go to the private sector and take on a job that pays well, but doesn’t have the level of stress and anxiety that these positions have had over the last couple of years?'”

Meanwhile, as the county asks people to wear masks voluntarily to slow the spread of coronavirus, Montgomery County Public Schools are requiring masks in cases where three people test positive for the virus.

The school system recently hired a chief medical officer, who is tasked with coordinating the response to COVID-19 with the county’s Health Department.

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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