Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 29, 2021, to add more details. It was updated at 12:55 p.m. Dec. 30, 2021, to include more information about the proposed changes to the indoor mask mandate regulation.

County health officials say an indoor mask mandate should continue into late January, amid rising coronavirus cases — even as the county is projected to soon hit 85% vaccination, which would end the mandate.

The exact language for the new recommendation was not immediately available Wednesday afternoon, but the County Council — sitting as the Board of Health — is scheduled to review the change, hold a public hearing, and vote on it on Jan. 4.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told reporters Wednesday that next week, James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, and other health officials will present the recommendation to leave the indoor mask mandate in place. 

In a news release Thursday, county officials said the following proposed changes would be voted on regarding the indoor mask mandate:

  • “Rescinding the automatic termination of the indoor mask mandate upon reaching 85 percent of the population being fully vaccinated”
  • “Removing the requirement to end the indoor mask mandate when the County moves into moderate transmission.” Moderate transmission, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is defined as 10 to 49.99 new coronavirus cases per day per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period.
  • “Continuing the indoor mask mandate until the Board of Health rescinds it in a formal order”
  • “Requiring the Board of Health to meet every two weeks to review data on community transmission and consider whether the indoor mask mandate should continue”
  • “Eliminating the outdated language requiring the County Executive to provide status updates on the County’s employee vaccination mandate”

The indoor mask mandate was most recently reinstated in mid-November. At that time, the Board of Health agreed to insert a provision that automatically terminated the mandate at 12:01 a.m. the day after 85% of the county’s total population was fully vaccinated, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 data tracker. 

As of Wednesday, that tracker showed 83.1% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated. 

But County Executive Marc Elrich and health officials have said that due to rising cases and hospitalizations this winter — in part because of the omicron variant — it might be worth revisiting the indoor mask mandate.

“We often get accused of moving the goalposts,” Stoddard said in a recent interview about how health officials are handling the pandemic, nearly two years in. “I think a big part of that is driven by the virus itself. … When the County Council was contemplating the sunset for the mask mandate, there was no such thing as omicron.”

“We have to recognize that the virus changes, and therefore it requires we revisit how we look at the virus,” he added. “I do think as we increase vaccinations, particularly in our 5- to 11-year-old population, we should be increasingly looking at hospitalization rate.” 

Case rates, hospitalizations

County health officials said Wednesday that despite rising coronavirus cases and rising hospitalizations in December, there still is some hospital capacity countywide. 

Stoddard said that part of the reason there is rising case counts in Montgomery County and across the Washington, D.C., region is because of the amount of testing that is occurring, compared to other parts of the country.

And because of the county’s high vaccination rate, the number of intensive care beds being used, oxygenation requirements and other metrics are better than in other regions, he said.

As of last week, there were 23 ICU beds available across hospitals across Montgomery County, Frederick County and some of Washington D.C., Stoddard said. That’s better than the worst point of the pandemic, when anywhere from six to zero beds were available, he added.

A chart of hospitalizations and ICU and other metrics, however, don’t always tell the whole story of what is happening inside hospitals, Stoddard said. Staffing issues and how resources are being used can differ from hospital to hospital.

Dr. Ann Burke, the medical director at Holy Cross Hospital, said local hospitals are not yet in a “crisis mode,” but staffing might be a concern in the coming weeks.

“Many of our local hospitals are rapidly approaching the contingency staffing requirement, which is, we can still provide safe care, but we might not be able to do it in the same manner that we’re accustomed to doing it,” Burke said. “So capacity is getting tight. Surge capacity is going to be even tighter.”

That capacity is especially tight statewide for facilities that offer a high level of care, over an extended period, she added.

“We do still have critical care capacity. What we are finding locally is that when we need to transfer a patient to a higher level of care … when we need to access our tertiary care centers in the state, predominantly in Baltimore, it is very difficult to get a bed for that higher level of care,” Burke said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com