I have often said and written that if it weren’t for COVID-19, climate change would be the major news story of the year, the decade, and beyond. This week Hurricane Ida and the aftereffects of torrential rain, flash flooding, and tornados have brought climate change front and center here and around the country even as we continue to grapple with COVID-19.
Powerful water flows swamped the ground-floor apartments at the Rock Creek Woods Apartments in Rockville in the middle of the night, tragically causing the death of Melkin Cedillo, a young man trying to save his mother, and displacing about 150 residents from 60 apartments. Our emergency responders helped with rescue and recovery, and our staff has been helping the displaced residents. We are also helping families displaced from 20 flooded units at the nearby Congressional Towers.
I went to the apartment complex Wednesday morning while the event was unfolding, and in my 60 years of living in this County, I have not seen anything like this. We are now investigating what may have led to this event so that we can identify the cause and appropriate fixes for the problem. We need to engage in short- and long-term planning for a future of more violent storms like Ida; these critically important topics are part of the Climate Action Plan, addressing issues regarding flood plains, drainage, impacts from infill development, loss of tree cover, and more.
We send our sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Melkin Cedillo. We will continue to work with the displaced residents to help them through this difficult ordeal. I have been asked by a number of people where they can donate to help –Interfaith Works https://www.iworksmc.org/ (and indicate “Rock Creek flood” as the donation purpose) and A Wider Circle https://awidercircle.org/ are both accepting clothing, small household items, gift cards and monetary donations. Furniture, including beds, can be donated to A Wider Circle.
I want to thank our Fire and Rescue Services, Emergency Management, Police, Transportation, and Health and Human Services departments for their quick response in the middle of the night to help these people as quickly as possible. I also want to thank the 45 people with our Fire and Rescue Services who went to Louisiana to assist the residents there.
Over the next few weeks, we will be at the height of hurricane and tropical storm season. Due to climate change, these storms are bigger, more intense, and more destructive year after year. We can’t reverse this trend, but we can slow down the deadly impacts. This is not going to happen by simply wishing or praying for it to get better – we need smart policy and the political will and courage to make tough decisions. Toward that end, we will continue to carefully follow the update to the General Plan, known as Thrive 2050. The current iteration of this plan, soon to be reviewed by the County Council, does not adequately address the County’s built environment regarding issues such as floodplains, imperviousness, stream protection, and the Agricultural Reserve. In fact, it has removed a chapter on the environment that was in an earlier version of the plan. We can do better - the decisions made regarding this plan will have a direct impact on our ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Our Climate Action Plan is one of the most ambitious in the country and we will aggressively move forward with our plans, but we can’t do it alone. Our state, our federal government, and our international community must keep up with us – we cannot afford to wait.
State of COVID-19 This Week in Our Community
I am sorry to report that this week, our seven-day community transmission rate has gone from “substantial” to “high” according to the CDC.
This is significant. Our numbers are going in the wrong direction, and we must not relax on our vigilance to protect ourselves, our families, our workplaces, and everyone we interact with.
As you can see, we are not alone with this problem: our state, region, and nation are all facing the same challenge. This week the European Union recommended that its 27 nations reinstate restrictions on tourists from the United States because of our rising case rate.
But we continue to stand out as the No. 1 nationwide for the percentage of the 12-and-over population fully vaccinated among all counties with more than 300,000 residents.
You can see how well we’re doing as compared to the nation:
The other positive news is that despite the high number of cases, hospitalizations are not nearly as high as they were during the time period last year when the case counts were about the same. Vaccinations are helping reduce hospitalizations.
The Unvaccinated and Vaccine Passports
The root cause of this surge of cases are the unvaccinated adults who simply refuse to be responsible for the health impacts that they have on both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. They are the source of these infections – vaccinated people do not spontaneously develop COVID-19 – they get it from exposure to unvaccinated people, and to a lesser degree, to vaccinated people who unknowingly have become infected by an unvaccinated person. All the COVID-19 cases in a chain, begin with an unvaccinated person at the beginning of the chain.
It is unfair that those unvaccinated individuals seem to assert that they have the right to be unvaccinated but no responsibility in how they handle that choice. They are putting the almost 90 percent of you who got vaccinated at risk and limiting your ability to enjoy doing things in a safe environment. This view of the world is just wrong and unjust.
And that leads us to Vaccine Passports. It is clear to me that if we are going to avoid these cases continuing to spiral out of control like they did last fall and winter, we must implement a vaccine passport program. When cases are higher, there is more anxiety about exposure and there are greater opportunities for exposure.
This hurts our businesses who have already had a tough 18 months. We continue to see businesses, particularly restaurants, operating below capacity because people don’t feel safe in indoor environments where they may be seated among unvaccinated people. Having children who are not yet eligible for a vaccine heightens the concern and the self-imposed restrictions even further. If the vaccinated felt comfortable that they could dine or go out to the movies, concerts, or events where the others around them were vaccinated or had proof of negative COVID-19 tests, this would help business. My hope is to create an assurance for people that you can enjoy as much of what used to be normal as possible – in a safe-as-possible environment.
None of us want to return to capacity limits or limiting indoor activities, and we should not have to. But we do need a vaccination passport program to make that possible, and at this point, if the region or state can’t move forward with a plan, we should do it on our own. Many restaurants and entertainment venues have already implemented one because they recognize the value and sense of security it gives to their customers.
Helping People Experiencing Homelessness and Helping Them Year-Round
Recently there has been discussion in the community about our decision to use the Long Branch and Gwendolyn Coffield Recreation Centers as temporary homeless shelters. During the pandemic, we needed additional space for shelters; we need to keep people appropriately distanced, and we also needed to provide shelter to many more people than we had in the past.
Prior to the pandemic, we generally did not provide shelter year-round; most people experiencing homelessness from April through November were left on the street. And our winter shelter had people barely separated from each other. I had already been working on a long-term solution to provide year-round housing, but with the support of the nonprofits who serve the homeless, we knew we had to act quickly in the midst of a pandemic to prevent COVID-19 from speeding through our homeless population. To be successful, we needed enough space for physical distancing, adequate bath and shower facilities, and locations within a short walking distance from public transportation.
We acted quickly and identified two recreation centers to house the homeless; at the same time, we used other recreation centers for testing, vaccinations, and other purposes. Now, even as many public facilities are being reopened, we have maintained these two temporary shelters in order to be sure that people have a roof over their heads during the heat and torrential rains, and we continue to follow CDC guidance on spacing requirements.
Understandably, some in the community want to be able to use these recreation centers again. And they will be able to by the end of January when our long-term solution of a large permanent facility is completed and open. Many months ago, I authorized the purchase and renovation of an office building for a permanent shelter that could house up to 200 people and give us the capacity to avoid having to make choices like this in the future – and provide year-round shelter so people aren’t forced to live outside for most of the year. That building will be ready by the first of the year, and then the recreation centers will be cleaned up and ready for the community by the end of January.
Some have asked that we move these people to hotels in the interim. We already have over 70 people in hotels, the most vulnerable people; but moving everyone is difficult logistically to provide services, staff and support to a dispersed situation, and some hotels are reluctant to accept homeless people now that hotel clients are returning. Additionally, the Interagency Commission on Homelessness strongly recommended against using hotels as shelters, writing that this “exacerbates many of the other challenges faced by homeless individuals … such as social isolation, depression, [and] substance abuse.”
During this interim period, our staff have developed an extensive list of alternate programs and services for the communities. They have free transportation for seniors to nearby centers and field trips, summer camps and soccer clinics, outdoor fitness clubs, alternate locations for dance and fitness classes and more. I know it’s not the same but hopefully, it is meeting at least some of the needs and desires of the community.
After hearing reports that the Coffield center has mice, mold, and leaks, I decided to make an unannounced visit this past weekend. I did not want anyone to know I was coming because I wanted to see firsthand the actual conditions and avoid any last-minute attempts to clean up and hide any issues. From media reports about these conditions, I expected the worst. But after carefully looking around the center, I did not notice problems at the level that had been described – there had been some mice, not unusual for a commercial building, but the staff said that when they had problems, they were able to get help and that the building was being treated for rodents. There were mold/mildew spots in the shower area, but it was the result of near-constant use of showers, and it was not all over the building. And there had been a leak that sprung in the middle of one of the huge rainstorms, and that too was fixed.
Our Department of General Services has responded promptly to address concerns and is in regular communication with our nonprofit partners running the shelters.
While the current situation is not ideal, I cannot in good conscience either put our homeless back on the street or move them to hotels, which is not advisable. Racial equity is also a consideration - 60 percent of persons experiencing homelessness in Montgomery County are black.
I am also proud to note that during the pandemic 712 households experiencing homelessness were placed in permanent supportive housing in 2020 and 2021. Homelessness among families decreased by 50 percent and unsheltered homelessness decreased by 34 percent. Out of the nearly 1,600 Montgomery County residents we lost to COVID-19, only two were homeless – that is pretty remarkable, and I think our efforts to provide adequate shelter have been essential.
I am proud of the efforts we have made to protect the homeless, I am thankful for the quick reaction of our staff to quickly address issues surrounding conditions within these facilities, and we remain committed to offering services to the nearby communities.
You can listen to my discussion of this issue at my weekly press briefing here.
Back to School!
I had the pleasure this week to join MCPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight as we visited several schools on opening day. We opened the newly remodeled Seneca Valley High School. It is a beautiful building that is now the state’s largest school by the physical size of the building. Seneca Valley is the UpCounty hub for career and technical education programs and offers 14 CTE programs including automotive technology, construction, hospitality and tourism, health care, cybersecurity and engineering.
We also visited Viers Mills Elementary School – a Title One Blue Ribbon School that serves a diverse and poor community with incredible results. We stopped by at lunchtime and talked to the principal and teachers about the logistics of ensuring kids are safe from COVID-19 exposures while eating. And our first day of school visits concluded at Parkland Middle School – a magnet school for Aerospace Technology. When I was in middle school, I was lucky to make a paper airplane fly, these students are building rockets!
There was something special about the first day of school this year. After 18 months of closure and 18 months of really difficult times adapting to a world that none of us knew anything about, there hasn’t been a time in our nation’s history that affected our ability to educate children quite like this pandemic. Not having our children in these school buildings five days per week was something unprecedented. As I watched the children and teachers reunite this week, it was obvious, everyone really missed this engagement. I want to wish everyone a great 2021-2022 school year.
Recognizing International Underground Railroad Month
Earlier this week, I participated in an event to proclaim September as International Underground Railroad month, and this year it is focused on unsung hero Josiah Henson. We are fortunate to have the recently renovated Josiah Henson Museum and Park that tells the history of Josiah Henson, enslavement in Maryland and the ongoing struggles of racial equity and justice. You can listen to my remarks here where I talk about the need to be honest – brutally honest – and that we have a responsibility to understand the history of slavery in order to move forward as a just and equitable society.
As always, my sincere appreciation for your support.