Still fighting COVID-19, Montgomery Co. now positions itself to fend off monkeypox

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are focusing on getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19 at the same time a new virus, monkeypox, has been on the rise in the region.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said in a briefing Wednesday that along with efforts to get more people vaccinated for COVID-19, the county is now dealing with “a new public health threat”: monkeypox.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 101 cases of monkeypox in Maryland, 205 in D.C., and 39 cases in Virginia.

Sean O’Donnell, public health emergency preparedness officer with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, told council members earlier in the week that the number of vaccines available for monkeypox was “limited.”

In Wednesday’s briefing, Kimberly Townsend, senior administrator for communicable diseases at the county health department, said 108 monkeypox vaccines had been administered at the Dennis Avenue Health Center.

“We also have scheduled approximately 50 appointments, which means we have used or accounted for at least half or just over half of the vaccine that we have been allocated from the Maryland Department of Health,” Townsend said.

O’Donnell said Monday that the county hopes to have more monkeypox vaccines available later this summer or in early fall.

During Wednesday’s briefing, Elrich and other officials often referred to the new virus as “MPX.”

Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s interim health officer, said the three-letter designation for the virus is being used in an effort to “de-stigmatize” the disease.

In the CDC’s guidance on the monkeypox virus, there is an explanation stating that “many — though not all — of the reported cases have been among gay and bisexual men.” On the same webpage, the CDC states that “anyone can get monkeypox,” and it should be promoted “as a health concern for all. Focusing on cases among gay and bisexual men may inadvertently stigmatize this population.”

Townsend said the health department is working with officials in neighboring jurisdictions to notify people who may have been exposed to monkeypox. “We’re working on health care provider communications and updating our HHS MPX webpage to include fact sheets and frequently asked questions,” Townsend said.

Still fighting COVID-19

In his weekly briefing, Elrich also noted that the county is now in the CDC’s “High” category for COVID-19 due largely to an uptick in hospitalizations to 13.1 admissions per 100,000 residents. That data includes patients from Montgomery, Prince George’s, St Mary’s and Charles Counties.

Montgomery County officials have repeated the advice to wear masks when indoors in public spaces.

“If you’re taking a bus or going somewhere indoors, have a well-fitting mask ready to put on regardless of your vaccination status,” Elrich said. “You can pick up free N95 masks at any library in some community centers across Montgomery County. And of course, the best way to protect yourself is to stay up to date on your vaccines and boosters.”

Regarding the county’s efforts to keep the coronavirus from spreading further, Bridgers noted that “the mask recommendation has never really gone away” and that the Omicron variant remains “highly transmissible.” But he said there’s no plan to decide on whether to require masks at schools this fall.

The emphasis is “to get our school-aged children vaccinated,” according to Bridgers, who said that 9,000 of the county’s estimated 50,000 children aged 5 and younger have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Bridgers also said that while there’s no vaccine requirement now for children to attend school in the fall, that didn’t mean it couldn’t change prior to school opening. “We’re looking at all that now,” he said.

Montgomery County still operates under an acting health officer

Bridgers has been working as the county’s acting health officer since September when the county’s previous health officer Dr. Travis Gayles stepped down.

The search for a replacement for Gayles hit a number of snags, with some candidates backing out of the position at the last minute and a unique requirement in the qualifications for the role.

Under Maryland state law, if the Health Officer is not a licensed physician, the deputy health officer must be one. Gayles was a licensed medical doctor, but because Bridgers is not a licensed physician, current regulations prevent him from being named to the top spot.

In Wednesday’s briefing, Elrich suggested that the county is on its way to a workaround for its current dilemma.

“We’re looking at a different way of doing this in terms of what the qualifications of the health officer would be, and if we pursue that, that would make this process probably a tad easier,” Elrich said.

Elrich didn’t say that Bridgers would be the likely candidate but said, “we’re rethinking our rules.”

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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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