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This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. Jan. 19, 2022, to include comment from Montgomery County Public Schools and more information.

Montgomery County officials announced Wednesday that they will begin distributing 4 million N95 masks at libraries, starting Friday.

The masks will be offered alongside rapid tests, but it’s unclear how many rapid test kits will be available because a shipment from a local vendor has not yet arrived, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told reporters. 

Stoddard said officials can distribute up to 14,000 masks at each library branch per day, beginning Friday. Residents can pick up to four masks each at any of the locations, officials said.

The following locations will distribute masks and test kits — if the latter are available — from noon to 2 p.m. on Friday and Saturday:

  • Aspen Hill
  • Chevy Chase
  • Damascus
  • Davis (Bethesda)
  • Gaithersburg 
  • Little Falls (Bethesda)
  • Potomac
  • Silver Spring
  • White Oak 

These locations will distribute from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday:

  • Connie Morella (Bethesda)
  • Germantown
  • Kensington Park
  • Long Branch
  • Marilyn J. Praisner (Burtonsville)
  • Olney
  • Quince Orchard (Gaithersburg)
  • Rockville
  • Twinbrook (Rockville)
  • Wheaton

Anita Vassallo, the director of Montgomery County Public Libraries, told reporters that volunteers and staff members should be able to comfortably handle distribution of masks and tests. Demand for tests has started to slow during the past couple of days, she added.

Stoddard said the county has been stockpiling masks during earlier surges of the pandemic, to ensure first responders, hospitals and other frontline workers had access to N95 masks and other similar kinds.

The county government was acting as a “backstop” to organizations that needed masks, he added.

“We wanted to make sure we had some level in reserves, so that we could sustain the local health system in Montgomery County should the supply chain infrastructure fail them again,” Stoddard said.

He said the county did not offer masks when it started offering test kits in libraries was to first ensure the distribution system worked. Masks also take up more space than test kits and take more effort to move, he added.

Stoddard said the county will still have a few million or so N95 or similar masks left when this distribution is over, he said. 

Officials still waiting on test kits shipment

As of Wednesday, the county still had not received its latest shipment of 196,000 coronavirus rapid test kits, Stoddard said.

County officials have distributed 792,000 test kits to libraries, schools and other community partners, Stoddard said. There are no kits left in the county’s warehouse, he added.

The shipping delays from iHealth, the vendor that has been suppling the county with the kits, have been “frustrating,” Stoddard said. Officials for iHealth could not immediately be reached for comment by email or phone Wednesday.

If the kits ship Wednesday and arrive Friday or Saturday, Stoddard estimated that the county might give roughly 50,000 kits to Montgomery County Public Schools. But it probably won’t be the 95,000 per week that the school system has requested, he said.

Chris Cram, a spokesman for MCPS, wrote in an email that the school system shares the county’s hope that future shipments won’t be delayed.

“We are certainly hopeful that the supply challenges will not be ongoing,” Cram wrote. “We have said and continue to say that testing is one of the most important strategies we can use now.”

The county would have to cut back on the number of kits sent to libraries if it tried to meet the MCPS request, Stoddard added.

“This has been part and parcel for a lot of this pandemic,” Stoddard said of procuring tests and other materials. “We don’t have a great national infrastructure, so you go find a partner, everyone sees you’ve found that partner [and] they all rush to that partner, and then that partner dries up. That’s just the way this works when you have a very decentralized, fractured production system.”

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

Steve Bohnel

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