Season’s Greetings. It’s hard to believe, but once again, we are heading into the holiday season with great concern about the spread of the virus. Even with such an enormous percentage of our population fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases nationally and locally are skyrocketing. With many families planning to celebrate the holidays with larger gatherings and more travelling, I am worried about the potential of massive outbreaks that could put a strain on our hospitals and healthcare systems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts are asking that people not host or attend gatherings if they are sick or have symptoms and not travel unless fully vaccinated. Although you have heard these tips for nearly two years now, they can’t be repeated enough: wash your hands, socially distance when possible and mask up.
It is also important to get tested before and after large holiday gatherings. Fortunately, many of you are getting tested as we are seeing thousands come out to our County-operated and private sector testing facilities. We have seen nearly a three-fold increase at our County’s COVID testing sites as compared to just a month ago in November.
Unfortunately, many of these locations are running out of capacity due to overwhelming demand. For the coming week, we are asking everyone to make an appointment to ensure you can get a test and avoid frustration. However, there will be no testing at County sites on Dec. 24, 25 and 26. To make an appointment at a County test facility, go to montgomerycountymd.gov/covid19/testing.html.
We also know that there is demand for rapid tests and those supplies continue to be extremely limited. We distributed the ones the County received to be used with our most vulnerable populations, which include the homeless and the homebound, those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and those at increased risk for COVID (or who work with those at increased risk) due to specific occupations, such as construction, frontline service industry, and adult day care. The County continues to order and wait for the arrival of more of these tests to give out to the community.
Cases are soaring
The cyber-attack on the State’s data dashboard at the beginning of the month left us without statewide or local test positivity and case rates for almost three weeks. While we now have some statewide data, we are still waiting for comprehensive County level data. Maryland is reporting a positivity rate of more than 11 percent, which is the highest it has been since the spring of 2020. Data from our County testing sites show a positivity rate in Montgomery County of more than 10 percent, which is the highest it has been since June 2020—just three months into the pandemic. This number does not include test results from our private sector partners.
The Omicron strain is showing up in 73 percent of new COVID cases nationally, according to the CDC. Unfortunately, Maryland has not directed the testing companies to send samples to the State to determine the variant—whether it is the older Delta or the newer Omicron. Having this information would be helpful because nationally, COVID numbers are 10 percent higher than a week ago. Nearly 80 percent of our nation’s intensive care unit beds are already full with COVID-19 patients in one in five of those beds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Montgomery County hospitals, the total number of COVID patients hospitalized is 227, the highest we have seen since last February. Both acute care and ICU bed usage by COVID cases have increased.
Governor Hogan noted this past Sunday that this is "probably the worst surge we have seen in our hospitals throughout the entire crisis." Unfortunately, on Monday, he announced he himself had COVID, and we also learned that Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski tested positive this week. Our wishes for mild symptoms and a speedy recovery go out to them and everyone who has contracted Covid.
Vaccinations and boosters are essential
Both Governor Hogan and County Executive Olszewski were fully vaxed and boosted, showing that we will continue to see breakthrough cases. The top concern is our hospitalization rates. Only 9 percent of unvaccinated Marylanders are responsible for 75 percent of our COVID-19 hospitalizations. Nationally, the unvaccinated are five times as high as fully vaccinated currently when it comes to daily cases and are 13 times higher in terms of dying from COVID. These statistics show the tremendous importance of vaccination.
The CDC is reporting this week that Montgomery County is 82.7 percent fully vaccinated. It is good to see that many in our community are taking this latest surge seriously.
We were happy to host a successful “Boosterama” last week at Westfield Wheaton mall. There were 100 residents in line before we opened, and we had to bring in more doses to meet the demand. We boosted and provided first doses to 420 people.
We have administered more than 311,000 boosters to our adult population, yet we still have more than 50 percent of our eligible vaccinated residents that have not taken their boosters. I have asked our health department to conduct outreach to our previously vaccinated individuals and send information about boosters. I am particularly concerned about the 43,000 residents over 65 that still need boosters, and we will target more outreach efforts toward that community.
According to the CDC, 75 percent of those who died of COVID in our country are over 65. (source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/mortality-overview.htm). If you are in this age group or have a loved one who is, please prioritize getting a booster. You can get more information at govaxmoco.com.
Keeping our children safely in schools is challenging and important
One of the biggest areas of concern of this surge is the impact on our schools and children. Our Department of Health and Human Services is working in concert with Montgomery County Public Schools to find the right balance between keeping our children are safe and healthy while keeping in-class learning as intact as possible after the holiday break.
Let me be clear: We are not going to put our children more at risk to be in a school building as they would be in the community in general. That is why I support the decision by the school administration and supported by our public health team to currently limit extracurricular activities. At the same time, it is critical that we do everything in our power to continue in-class learning.
The learning loss that occurred when schools were virtual, especially for many lower income and minority families, was heartbreaking. Additionally, when children are not in school, many families miss the resources schools provide—such as daily lunches—and they struggle with economic impacts when children are at home and parents can’t work from home. We must all work to avoid these impacts through some very tough weeks ahead.
We are hoping and asking that the families and parents of MCPS students also help keep other students safe by getting their children tested and vaccinated before they return to school. More than 50 percent of our 5-11 population is not yet vaccinated.
Almost 44,000 of those 5-11 have received their first dose and about 30,000 of this group are fully vaccinated.
I strongly urge parents, guardians, family and friends to get our young people their shots. It is really important.
Honoring some of our remarkable County residents
I presented the inaugural Inez Zeigler McAbee and William Harvey Zeigler Humanitarian Award and the 2021 Roscoe R. Nix Distinguished Community Leadership Awards at an event last week. This event recognized and honored four of the County’s most distinguished volunteers and community servants.
I was proud to present the first Inez Zeigler McAbee and William Harvey Zeigler Humanitarian Award to Harvey Zeigler, and the Roscoe Nix Awards to Bryon A. Johns, Blanca Kling and Diego Uriburu. These awards are the highest honors our County government can bestow upon residents, and they highlight the tremendous work that people are doing to make this County a better and more equitable and inclusive place.
Inez and Harvey Zeigler both had a lifelong commitment to civil rights, community service and local activism that made it more than appropriate for the Humanitarian of the Year Award to be renamed the Inez Zeigler McAbee and William Harvey Zeigler Humanitarian Award. Although Inez is no longer with us, it was an honor to present the first award to Harvey, who has done so much to fight for human and civil rights in this County.
At 101 years old, Harvey Zeigler remains a community and civic activist, mentor and historian. During his lifelong pursuit for equality and justice, his accomplishments have included striking down job discrimination and promoting the hiring of African Americans in government agencies, including Montgomery County Public Schools and the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. You can watch a short video about Mr. Ziegler at https://youtu.be/Q6e5b-voYMc.
I was also pleased to honor three community leaders with the Roscoe R. Nix Distinguished Community Leadership Awards. They received these awards for their extraordinary contributions to Montgomery County over the course of their lives. Byron A. Johns has been a longtime advocate for educational equity and is the current education chair for the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP. He co-founded the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence with fellow 2021 Nix Leadership Award recipient Diego Uriburu. You can watch a short video about Byron Johns at https://youtu.be/idpkPJYKgGw.
Diego Uriburu is the co-founder and executive director of Identity, an organization that creates opportunities for Latino and other historically underserved youth to help realize their highest potential and thrive. Identity also works to empower parents to engage in their children’s education and be champions for their success and the success of the community. As I mentioned, Diego co-founded the Black and Brown Coalition with Byron Johns. You can watch a video about Diego Uriburu at https://youtu.be/owOWXYmVroQ.
The third recipient of a Roscoe R. Nix Distinguished Community Leadership Award was Blanca Kling, who passed away earlier this year. Blanca served Montgomery County residents for four decades as a media spokesperson, community leader and victims’ rights advocate. She had a long track record of public service and a lifetime of dedication to County government and its constituents. You can watch a video about Blanca Kling at https://youtu.be/8y2ka6LPk9s.
Harvey said it best at this ceremony, “If you don’t work together and try to unite together, it's downhill. I’ve tried all these 101 years, and I feel like that’s the only way to do it, is to unite and talk from the heart. Try, and try again. If you fail once, don’t give up. Keep trying.”
My sincere appreciation to the awardees for their great work.
Thank you to everyone who is remembering those in need
As many of us enjoy families and festivities this holiday week, I want to note everyone who is trying to support or help out the thousands of our neighbors, friends and even strangers who are in a tough spot economically, dealing with stress and mental health challenges, or are just down on their luck.
This week I joined my granddaughter at a food and toy distribution event in a Takoma Park Co-Op called “Small Things Matter.” Individuals in need lined the street and greeted us with smiles and appreciation for those who donated and collected these items. I want to thank everyone for making this event happen, along with the hundreds of other charity efforts throughout the County.
On a personal note, I was also proud to watch my granddaughter give her time and heart to those who need help.
I can’t count the number of food, clothing, supplies and toy giveaways I have been to throughout this County over the past 22 months. If there was one consistent community character about Montgomery County, it is our compassion. We are united as a community, empowered by our diversity, and always willing to reach out and assist our neighbors and uplift strangers. I am very lucky that I get to see the good in our people, and that Montgomery County is full of humanitarians.
Thank you, and I wish you and your families a safe and healthy holiday week.