Officials in Prince George’s County say they have seen a rapid and dramatic decline in COVID-19 case rates over the past week and are aligning with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in loosening nearly all coronavirus-related restrictions in the county.
Among the rules the county is preparing to ditch are social distancing guidelines and capacity restrictions on indoor and outdoor business. However, the county plans to keep in place an indoor mask-wearing requirement.
County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is prepping an executive order that is expected to be released, County Attorney Rhonda Weaver told members of the Prince George’s County Council on Friday morning.
“Generally speaking, the county executive’s plan is to align the county with the state regulations, with the exception that when it comes to indoor masks, that’s going to stay in place, irrespective of when the governor changes,” Weaver said.
“It’s going to stay in place until our own metrics determine” it’s safe to do so, she added.
Hogan has said he will strike out a state order requiring masks indoors once at least 70% of adult Marylanders have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. Currently, about 65% of adult residents have had at least one shot.
“That’s the one piece we’re not tying ourselves to … That doesn’t mean we’re not going to look at it,” Weaver said. The county will make its own decisions based on data within the county, she said.
The changes in Prince George’s County are due to take effect Monday.
County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said the county’s COVID-19 metrics have been “exponentially declining” over the past several weeks with a marked decline in just the past 10 days. “It’s really dramatic,” he said.
The positivity rate — the percentage of tests coming back positive — has declined from 5% to 4% in the last five days. “That’s a dramatic decrease in positivity,” he said. Previously, it took 10 days for a one point decrease. The daily case rate per 100,000 residents has also fallen — from 14.2 cases to 8.7 cases, also in the past five days.
Hospitalizations have also declined, with fewer than 100 per week in the last two weeks.
“All the major indicators are going down,” he said.
In addition, Carter noted that most of the surrounding communities — Montgomery and Howard counties in Maryland and D.C. — also have seen declining coronavirus case rates.
“That sort of gives us a wall of protection,” Carter said.
He told the council that he had been more cautious in the past but was seeing signs of optimism.
“I’m very conservative, as you well know, and for me to come and say I’m going to align with the state is probably a little bit over the top for me, but I’ve looked at the data, and I feel very confident about this move,” Carter said.
Initially, the county had planned to lift some restrictions on businesses starting Monday but keep others in place. However, after the governor announced his plan to lift nearly all restrictions, the county decided to speed up its plan and align with the state.
Carter said he doesn’t anticipate a spike in cases as the county lifts most restrictions. Still, he said, “let’s say something dramatic happens in the reverse. We have the ability to put the restrictions back in. But again, we’re hoping we see this continual progress.”
Several council members quizzed county officials about potential confusion following the announcement Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks indoors.
County officials noted that the CDC announcement is guidance only.
“They just sort of made a blanket statement regarding masks and realize now they need to go back and look specifically so that states can have guidance and we can have guidance on exactly how to enforce it,” said George Askew, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for health, human services and education.
The discussion came as the county hosted a daylong “Vaccine-a-thon” from 9 a.m. until midnight at the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in Landover. Starting at 6 p.m., the county will vaccinate newly eligible 12-to-15-year-olds at the site.
But council members said they were concerned the county was too slow in rolling out vaccination for kids in the county.
Council member Dannielle Glaros, who represents District 3, said she heard of parents who registered their children and took them to be vaccinated at the county’s clinics on Thursday only to be turned away.
She also pointed to a notice on the county’s vaccine website posted May 12 that says the county health department “is not yet vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds against COVID-19 but it is prepared to when the time comes.”
Glaros said, “It’s been really frustrating to parents that they have been able to register their kids at county sites, only to be turned away from county sites, when they’ve been taking their kids that are 12 and above.”
Askew responded, “I have made it clear that I don’t want any of our kids turned away, and my understanding is that we should be vaccinating our 12-to-15-year-olds today, and I will follow up on that.”
Council member Monique Anderson-Walker, who represents District 8, asked Carter about whether the coronavirus might shift toward being more of a seasonal concern with guidance around mask-wearing and social distancing returning in the fall.
“As to whether or not we’re going to bring back masks and socially distancing, it will depend on how well we’re able to vaccinate people before the virus starts to take hold again,” Carter said.
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