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by Judith Hruz
The county ranks among the highest in the nation for the percentage of residents who are vaccinated against COVID-19 – it is hailed by other jurisdictions as an example of what to do well — yet the number of cases creeped back into the substantial transmission range, triggering the Board of Health regulation mandating masks be worn at public indoor places at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 20.
“We’re not immune and we’re not an island,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during his weekly media briefing Nov. 17.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Elrich and county health officials have been cautious about wearing masks and taking other measures to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
Montgomery Count lifted its mask mandate at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 28 after recording seven consecutive days of moderate COVID-19 transmission, down from the higher substantial transmission rate, Dr. James Bridgers, acting county health officer, had said.
Knowing that the number of cases would fluctuate, however, the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, on Nov. 2 unanimously amended the regulation to require seven consecutive days of substantial COVID-19 transmission before an indoor face covering requirement would be reinstated in areas open to the public.
The amendment prevented a possible back-and-forth change from not wearing masks to wearing them, with the community trying to keep track of what regulation was in place.
The Board of Health’s original Aug. 5 order was amended “in an effort to prevent a proverbial yo-yo effect, if you will,” Bridgers had said.
The county’s health officer is required to report to the county executive and the County Council when the numbers change from one transmission category to another.
Bridgers told the County Council on Nov. 16 that the county returned to substantial transmission of COVID-19 based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
“Montgomery County has one of the best rates in the nation for vaccinations and limiting the spread of COVID-19 because we have consistently made public health decisions based on data and guidance from our top health officials,” Council President Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 5) said when the amendment was made. “The goal of this amendment is to balance public health concerns with stability and predictability for residents on indoor masking guidance. This approach is meant not only to keep each of us safe but to help keep everyone else safe.”
A seven-day period for monitoring COVID-19 transmission rates provides a more accurate picture of public health trends related to the virus and eliminates quick swings back and forth on indoor masking requirements, council members said.
The CDC classifies transmission values as low, moderate, substantial or high. If there is a change in COVID-19 transmission levels from substantial to moderate, the seven-day clock for determining substantial transmission stops. The seven-day clock is restarted when the community enters the substantial transmission range.
According to the CDC, the category of “substantial” transmission in reached when a community registers at least 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents or has an 8 percent to 9.99 percent test positivity rate over the past seven days.
The category of “moderate” transmission is reached when a community registers at least 10 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents or has a 5 percent to 7.99 percent test positivity rate over seven consecutive days.
The CDC recommends that any jurisdiction in the high or substantial categories require masks indoors.
The amended Board of Health regulation:
Requires that residents must wear face coverings in indoor areas open to the public when notice is given by the health officer or a designee that the county has been an area of substantial COVID-19 transmission for seven consecutive days.
Provides that the health officer or designee must promptly take reasonable steps to notify the public if the county has become an area of substantial transmission for seven consecutive days.
Requires the health officer to begin counting a period of seven consecutive days on the day that the transmission status of the county changes according to the CDC.
Requires that the mandate to wear face coverings in indoor spaces open to the public terminates without further action by the Board of Health when the county returns to a status of moderate transmission for a period of seven consecutive days.
Masks must continue to be worn in county public schools and on public transportation.
The Maryland State Department of Education sets the policy for public schools and the federal government sets the transportation policies.
Owners of private businesses may also mandate that masks and face covering be worn in their establishments.
Residents would be better off if they continued to stay masked even if mandate is lifted, Elrich has said on several occasions.
“There is no reason to take it off,” he said during his weekly media briefing Oct. 27.
“The virus is still here,” he added.
The CDC recommends that anyone who is unvaccinated should continue to wear a mask or face covering when indoors or in crowded areas to minimize the potential spread of the virus.
“Let me be clear, everyone should be wearing a mask when they go indoors,” Elrich said.
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