Faced with surging cases of coronavirus and a troubling rise of hospitalizations related to COVID-19, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced a series of new restrictions in one of Maryland’s hardest-hit counties, including shutting down indoor restaurant dining and cutting capacity limits at retail stores heading into the holiday shopping season.
Outdoor dining will remain at 50% capacity, and restaurants can still offer curbside service and takeout.
Capacity at retail stores, currently capped at 50%, will be further reduced to 25% capacity, Alsobrooks said. The casino at MGM National Harbor will be allowed to stay open but also limited to 25% capacity. In addition, capacity at gyms and fitness studios will be cut back to 25%.
The new restrictions will go into effect at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, and will remain in effect through Jan. 16.
“The numbers that we are seeing tell us that we are headed in the wrong direction, and that we need to take swift and quick action right now to make sure that we are working to contain this virus in our community,” Alsobrooks said.
The test positivity rate in Prince George’s County — the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive — has risen to more than 10%. The average daily case rate per 100,000 is now 45.7.
A month ago, the case rate per 100,000 was less than half of what it is now. Previously, Alsobrooks had said if the rate went above 25, officials would be “gravely concerned.”
Alsbrooks said the county’s hospital capacity has shrunk since Thanksgiving, with fewer than half — 48.7% — of hospital beds now available.
On Nov. 8, there were 68 people hospitalized in the county with COVID-19. By Dec. 8, that had more than doubled to 177 and is continuing to rise, Prince George’s County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said.
The number of hospitalizations have not yet reached the levels seen in the spring at the beginning of the pandemic, Carter said, in part because many of the people in the county testing positive recently have been younger.
Alsobrooks said the decision to impose further restrictions wasn’t made lightly, and that the county is continuing to explore ways to support local businesses.
Alsobrooks’ announcement of new restrictions came the day after neighboring Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich announced a proposal to temporarily suspend indoor dining. Anne Arundel County unveiled new restrictions, similar to Prince George’s County’s, on Thursday afternoon.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is set to discuss coronavirus efforts during a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Vaccines: Gradual ramp-up then ‘huge surge’
With the federal government on the cusp of approving two vaccines for emergency use — one from Pfizer and the other from Moderna — county officials also discussed the county’s planning for the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
Prince George’s County and its health systems are expected to get their first batches of the vaccine before the end of the year, Carter said. It’s still not known how many total doses the county will receive at first.
Working with the county’s Office of Emergency Management, the health department will work to distribute the vaccines in what Carter called a “safe and phased approach” that will take several months before members of the general public will be able to receive the shots.
The first phase is reserved for health care and hospital workers, followed by residents and staff of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
“Nursing home residents have the highest risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19. So we’ve got to get to them early,” Carter said.
The next phase of the vaccine rollout will include first responders and other front-line workers, including firefighters and police officers. Also included in that phase are people considered high-risk. “It turns out, in Prince George’s County, that’s a lot of folks,” Carter said.
Each of the phases of the vaccine distribution is expected to take several weeks to complete, Carter said.
“You’re going to see a gradual ramp-up, then you’re going to see this huge surge,” he added.
To allay concerns and skepticism about the vaccine, Carter pledged to take the vaccine publicly.
He said, as it stands now, he’s 98% confident in the safety and effectiveness of the two vaccines, saying he’s waiting on final approval by the Food and Drug Administration and also wants to read accompanying medical data himself.
The county is also rolling out a public education campaign called “Proud to be Protected” to overcome any public skepticism.
In brief, emotionally-tinged remarks, Dr. George Askew, deputy chief administrative officer for Health, Human Services and Education, spoke of his father and grandfather when he pointed to a deep-rooted mistrust of government authorities shared by African Americans when it comes to health care.
“When we roll out our vaccine delivery here, we will do so with the confidence that it is in the best interest of the health and well-being of the county,” Askew said. “And we wouldn’t do it unless we truly believe that to be so; therefore, I am urging you, when the vaccine becomes available to you, join us in taking the vaccine and being proud to be protected.”
The county is planning a number of vaccination sites, which will all be run on an appointment-only basis.
To start with, the county will use the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Complex for the first round of vaccinations, said Ronald Gill, the county’s director of emergency management.
Other clinics will eventually open in Largo, Laurel, Cheverly and Clinton. There will also be three mobile vaccine units.
Officials assured residents the vaccines will be free. Officials said they are aiming to vaccinate 85% of the county’s more than 900,000 residents, but said the minimum is 65%.
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