Prince George’s Co. extends mask mandate into March

The Prince George’s County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to extend the county’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, and its mask mandate for indoor public spaces, to March 9.

The declaration, which had been set to expire Jan. 23, also now encourages — but does not require — people to wear properly fitting N95 or KN95 masks, or cloth masks over surgical masks. It also encourages people to complete their vaccine series, including boosters.

The council received an update on COVID-19 in the county from health officials, including Dr. George Askew, deputy chief administrative officer for health, human services and education, who said he’s “quite pleased with where I see the numbers going for us.”

“I’m hoping that we have reached the peak of this surge and that we are either in a plateau phase or maybe even on a downward swing,” Askew said, noting that models had the peak of the omicron-driven surge happening later in the month and stretching into February.

“I’m feeling optimistic about where we’re headed as a county,” Askew told the council. He said that optimism came from the continued mask mandate and the decision to transition to virtual classes until after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “And I think all of those things are contributing to our ability to start making a … rapid decline in our COVID cases, and even starting to see that in our COVID hospitalizations.”

Still, COVID cases and hospitalizations remain high.

Askew said that going into December, Prince George’s County had one of the lowest transmission rates in the state. But then a security breach hit the Maryland Department of Health, hampering data sharing.

“When it came back, we saw we were being hit quite hard by omicron in the county. What we’ve seen recently though is that we are recovering at a faster pace than the other counties and … now are somewhere in the middle of the grouping,” Askew said, adding that he anticipates the county will once again have among the lowest transmission rates in the state.

For now, though, the COVID positivity rate is about 10 times what it should be, said Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter.

Carter told the council that the county’s positivity rate stands at around 32% to 34% — much higher than the 3% health officials would like to see.

But Carter said he’s “cautiously optimistic,” because transmission rates are falling and hospitals are “still in fairly good shape.”

Hospital staffing

While high patient volumes and staffing shortages have stressed the county’s hospital system, it has not reached the critical stage that some other area hospitals have.

Carter said that nearly 80% of regular beds in Prince George’s County hospitals are currently in use, while about 81% of ICU beds are being used for people with COVID-19.

Those figures are high, Carter said, but there are signs they are leveling off. “We have built up enough capacity for our ICUs to be able to handle it for now, and if those numbers are going down, we feel fairly confident that our health system will be stable.”

Carter noted that the overwhelming majority of people who are hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, while less than 10% have been boosted, so he said the county will continue pushing for residents to get their boosters.

Currently about 78% of residents older than 5 have had at least one shot of a COVID vaccine. That includes at least 95% of seniors and 93% of those over 18. About 80% of people over 18 have been fully vaccinated.

Where the county lags behind is among children ages 5 to 11. Carter estimates about 27% of kids in the county have been vaccinated — roughly in line with statewide figures.

“Common sense says here that folks are just much more hesitant when it comes to younger children, [especially] when folks are hearing that children don’t get as sick, children don’t transmit it,” Askew said.

He said that while it’s true that the long-term implications of vaccines aren’t well-known yet, “I can say that we do know that children get sick from COVID. We do know that children get hospitalized. We do know that children die from COVID,” Askew said. “I recommend that you not take that chance as a parent.”

Some council members asked how long the pandemic will be considered a crisis, versus when we begin to accept the coronavirus as endemic, like the flu.

Carter said we won’t be in perpetual crisis mode.

“My own feeling is that the crisis part of this is going to be over in this March, April time frame … once this omicron dies down, once people who are getting infected with omicron develop immunity,” Carter said. “And of course if everyone goes and gets their boosters, then when we come back to you in, I imagine, April, then it’s going to be a different process.”

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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