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Amid hospitalization surge, Montgomery County executive hints mask mandate may be extended

The leader of Maryland’s most populous county said a mask mandate may need to continue even after the number of vaccinated residents reaches a key benchmark.

The mandatory mask mandate in place in Montgomery County is expected to continue through the end of the year. County Executive Marc Elrich said it is expected to sunset when 85% of county residents are vaccinated, which could soon happen.

But Elrich said a winter surge and a new potentially more contagious variant may require his county to keep the mandate in place.

Elrich said the original benchmark was “predicated on the notion that was herd immunity” adding there is no sign the herd, that means you and me and our friends, are immune to this.”

Currently, 82% of the eligible population in Montgomery County are considered fully vaccinated.

“We won’t get to herd immunity at 85% and no one should expect anything magical to happen,” Elrich said.

Elrich and his health team are asking the county council, which sits as the county health board, to revisit the current mask mandate and consider changes to when it might sunset. It is not clear what metrics will be substituted for vaccination rates.

In a meeting with reporters, acting Montgomery County Heath Officer James Bridgers broadly outlined a complicated series of measurements including case and positivity rates, hospital bed occupancy and staffing, death rates and even how fast the virus is reproducing. The result could be a measurement that might make it harder for the public to understand when the mask mandate might be lifted.

Case counts continue to rise across the state including in congregate facilities such as nursing and group homes, as well as spikes in schools and childcare facilities.

“In my mind, we go back to normal when this thing lets us go back to normal,” said Elrich. “You can’t keep trying to re-invent normal. We’re using case rates and accepting case rates, we were closed under before and now we’re saying we’re ok to deal with this,” said Elrich. “I’m very nervous about letting this get out of hand.”

Elrich and other leaders say a lack of data from the state Health Department over the last two weeks has made monitoring the pandemic more challenging.

A number of Maryland Department of Health websites fell victim to a cyber attack two weeks ago. The state’s COVID-19 dashboard that hosts daily updates remains mostly nonfunctional. Only hospitalization and vaccination numbers are current.

Health officials and Gov. Larry Hogan have been mum on the nature of the attack and questions about ransom demands or payments. Some contractors say they are also unable to access some state websites and that they have been told at least some health department employees are unable to use their own computers.

Health department officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions or provide a timeline of when the site might return to full operation.

Some county officials said this week that the lack of data is posing problems.

“I wouldn’t say we’re flying blind,” Anne Arundel County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman told reporters Tuesday. “Our vision is a little fuzzy.”

Kalyanaraman said the county is able to track hospitalizations, which is a key metric.

But Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman told reporters that the available data handcuffs and means his county and others “can’t project what hospitalization rates are going to be in two weeks.”

At least two counties — Montgomery and Howard — have announced changes to some after-school activities because of the pandemic.

In Montgomery County, outbreaks in schools have caused officials to consider a pause in the season, possibly on a case-by-case basis. All spectators will be required to wear masks while indoors and remain socially distant from the teams. Spectators are also being asked to leave as soon as the game is finished and not gather outside. Schools with five or more cases could be subjected to a 14-day pause based on the last known exposure.

Howard County school officials have canceled sports as well as other activities including theater and music performances and field trips through January 15.

As of Wednesday morning, the state reported 1,151 patients statewide. This is more than double the number of people hospitalized on Nov. 1 and is up 55% since Dec. 1.

On Wednesday, Hogan announced additional actions to bolster COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including the creation of a state Surge Operations Center to monitor the influx of patients including those who are unvaccinated.

The state is also asking hospitals to reduce nonemergency surgeries that might require overnight stays once the state hits 1,200 hospitalized patients. At the 1,500 patient benchmark, hospitals are being ordered to implement pandemic plans.

In a Wednesday news release, David Marcozzi, the COVID-19 incident commander for University of Maryland Medical System, described the recent spike seen at the system’s hospitals.

“At our 12 University of Maryland Medical System hospitals, we have experienced a 187 percent increase in COVID-positive patients during the past four weeks and are only beginning to feel the impact of the Omicron variant,” Marcozzi said.

Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer for Montgomery County, compared the increase in surge capacity “to increasing the limits on your credit cards repetitively instead of understanding how you can, you know, better spend your resources.”

“I feel like unfortunately the state is relying so much on let’s just let the hospitals deal with the problem because we don’t want to go back to our population and ask them to do anything more than we’ve asked them to do at this point,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s a holistic nor fair responsibility to lay at the feet of our hospitals given how much we’v already put them through over the last two years. We’ve been entirely unfair to our healthcare partners.”