January 13, 2022

Message from the County Executive

Dear Friends,

Nearly every person I know is dealing with having COVID-19, recovering from COVID-19 and/or being a close contact to someone with COVID-19. And experts are saying we're probably only diagnosing somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of actual infections since a lot of people are not testing and are walking around with mild symptoms unknowingly spreading the virus.

I continue to test positive (today is day 13); although I am feeling much better, I will continue to isolate until I test negative. One thing that I noted while recovering was a spike in my blood sugar and it has stayed high, which, as a diabetic, can be very dangerous. I did some research and learned that this is a health impact of the virus. It’s an example of how COVID-19 can produce more problematic health outcomes – it’s the higher sugar level that actually does some of the damage. So, if you’re diabetic and you’re monitoring your sugar (which should be done), and you see your sugar levels start to spike, consult your health professional – my doctor had suggestions for what I needed to do.

I realized that we often mention that comorbidities and preexisting conditions may exacerbate COVID-19-related problems, but we generally don’t give details. So, if you test positive for COVID-19 and, like me, have preexisting conditions, please take the extra step and make sure you are closely monitoring any additional symptoms you might have as a result.

My entanglement with COVID-19 is no different than many of you. Even if the symptoms are considered not severe, they are still uncomfortable. Our work productivity and personal responsibilities have been disrupted. And, for parents of school children infected or potentially exposed, there is even more stress and anxiety. All our struggles with this virus have compounded to create a rash of staffing shortages impacting our hospitals, schools, county government, and businesses big and small.

This is a very difficult moment of the pandemic. As we watch this surge evolve over the next several weeks, we will continue to prioritize the health and welfare of our residents as our top priority. This is what we have done since day one of this pandemic, and it has been the formula to our success as one of the best performing jurisdictions throughout this nation in dealing with this pandemic.

COVID-19 Case Rates are High

Our test-positivity rate this week has been hovering around 25 percent, which is almost as high as it was during the first month of the pandemic in 2020. And our case rate is currently near 2,000 cases per 100,000 residents – a number five times higher than any other time during the pandemic.

The good news is that despite these high transmission rates, our County’s high vaccination rate is helping us avoid large masses of residents with severe symptoms who may need hospitalizations. Ninety-five percent of the eligible population has received at least one dose, and 90 percent are fully vaccinated.

But only 45 percent of the eligible population are fully boosted. 55 percent have not received their booster shots. The best thing you can do to help us out during this surge, is to please get vaccinated and get your booster.

Rapid Kit Distribution Has Been Very Popular

The other important practice we know that everyone wants to do but has been frustrated over – is access to testing. This week, we made great progress to help our residents’ access tests. Nearly 600,000 rapid tests have been received and are being distributed, and another 1.5 million have been ordered. This includes 190,000 to MCPS as well as tens of thousands to our community health and other partners to ensure that these tests are also reaching communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

This week, we began to distribute free, rapid take-home test kits at County libraries, and we have already distributed more than 200,000 in four days. Even with these large quantities, supplies are generally lasting about an hour at each location. I am grateful to the residents who understand how important these tests are, have come out, waited in cold weather, and have been generally patient and understanding of this process. As more kits arrive, we'll continue to use the libraries. I do ask all residents to avoid hoarding these tests for themselves. We will continue to provide a supply to be available, but we need people to understand that every resident and family deserves access to these tests.

Self-Report Testing Results

This week, we also launched a web portal that will allow residents to notify HHS if they do test positive. Residents who test themselves with a rapid at-home COVID-19 test can now report their results on a self-reporting portal that can be found on the COVID-19 Testing section of our website. The more self-reporting we receive the more accurate we can be with the amount of COVID-19 we are seeing in our community.

Hospitals Are Still Feeling the Pressure of Omicron

Our top concerns and focus continue to be on our hospitals and our schools. Statewide, there are nearly 3,500 Marylanders hospitalized with COVID-19 – a number that has doubled over the last two weeks and 1,500 more people than the previous height of the pandemic last winter. Eighty-four percent of patients in the hospital with the virus have not received the full series of shots. In Montgomery County, we have 560 COVID-19 patients hospitalized – which is the most we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

No Easy Answers for Our Schools

Dealing with this surge and the impact on our schools is tough. We are in a difficult place. We were glad to be able to deliver 190,000 rapid tests to the school system, and more are coming. These tests should help families and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) staff assess the health status of students, and faculty.

Staffing the schools has also been difficult; this is impacting the teachers, school bus drivers, paraeducators, building services and other staff. These shortages provide real challenges for in-school instruction.

This week, at the request of MCPS, we reached out to Maryland Department of Emergency Management Agency to request any state support or resources, including the Maryland National Guard, who would qualify to drive school buses for us. Unfortunately, no resources are available, but we continue to look for help and assistance for MCPS. Whether it is substitute teachers or school bus drivers, nurses or social workers, these are professions that we can’t simply find any person off the street to perform.

The problem facing our schools is not just a learning problem but also a staffing problem. MCPS staff is way overstretched; the school system is struggling to replace people who are out sick, supports are fragile, and it is having operational impacts. It is clear the schools can’t fill all the slots for teachers who are sick with qualified substitutes, and ditto for bus drivers. Teachers have been pulled into filling voids, but it can come at the expense of lunch or planning time. Understandably, teachers, administrators, parents, and students are frustrated and concerned. It is important that everyone gets heard – many parents and students are concerned about the spread of Omicron generally, and there are concerns about how the operational shortages may further affect the spread of the virus. And there are parents who do not want to have their children repeat the learning losses that occurred last year. The question now is not just about how to keep schools open; it is whether it is possible to do so given the challenges to providing instruction – at least in the short-term. (And I do believe that this is a short-term not long-term issue, assuming the virus doesn’t have any more unpleasant surprises for us.) Any decisions need to involve the people who are providing the services day to day and who understand what is sustainable. It is critical that school staff be a part of assessing the capacity to provide instruction and in determining at what point the system cannot sustain this. They need to be part of crafting the solution, and it is critical to recognize that the staff are overstressed, covering for their colleagues who are out sick and trying to meet the needs of students, both in the classroom and out sick. Next steps must address these issues and I’m convinced that moving to a model that allows students to stay in school, or receive the same instruction at home, is the best option at this point in time. Parent concerns about the safety of the school environment are legitimate. Parents should be able to opt into virtual learning at any point, until this intense wave of Omicron subsides, if they feel that’s best for a child. It’s an unusual power to give a parent, but these are unusual times. I’m confident that this will subside, and this should not be of a long duration. Our rules and policies for this year were shaped by Delta, but the virus has put its Omicron team on the field, and we need strategies that address the unique behavior profile of the Omicron variant.

Omicron Affecting County Government Staffing

Our record-high rates of community transmission are not only impacting staffing levels in our schools and but continue to impact our government operations. Two weeks ago, we announced staffing changes and service reductions in our fire department; this week our Alcohol Beverage Services store hours had to be reduced and Ride On routes will be reduced by about 9 percent from the current schedule due to staffing shortages.

We apologize for any inconvenience and encourage residents to continue to check out the County website and follow our social media pages for consistent updates. Despite our staffing shortages, our Montgomery County Department of Transportation snow removal crews and contractors did a great job last week with the significant snow and ice events that occurred.

General Assembly Begins Session

This week, the Maryland General Assembly began its 2022 legislative session. Last year, COVID-19 required legislators to make significant adjustments to how the session was conducted. One year later, they are facing similar challenges with the surge in cases around our State, country, and the world. This year, there will be continued focus on the State’s COVID-19 response, recovery, and, specifically the impact of this pandemic on schools and children.

With Montgomery County residents setting the standard, Maryland has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, but we must ensure that our people, and our economy, have support as we try to navigate our way out of this pandemic. Now is the time to reinvest in our public schools, economic development, public safety, transportation, and initiatives that combat climate change. I look forward to working with our delegation to make our case as we push for our shared priorities this legislative session.

Over the next 90 days, our State delegation will be working diligently to ensure the concerns and issues of Montgomery County are addressed. I wish them a safe and productive 2022 legislative session that will deliver a better quality of life for our residents and the people of Maryland.

Our Microgrid Attracts International Attention

One of the County government’s projects I am most excited about is our Brookville Smart Energy Bus Depot. This week, the website microgridknowledge.com named it to their list of “22 Intriguing Microgrid Projects to Watch in 2022” - demonstrating how innovative this endeavor is.

They wrote: “Montgomery County, Maryland, is another smart jurisdiction. Within commuting distance to the nation’s capital, the county already has microgrids at correctional and public safety facilities. Now it’s building a 5.6 MW microgrid with distributed energy generation, energy storage and over 2 MW of charging capacity at the Brookville Smart Energy Bus Depot. AlphaStruxure, a joint venture between Schneider Electric and the Carlyle Group, designed and will build and deliver the project for the county, using an energy-as-a-service model that doesn’t require the county to make upfront payments. The county wants to reach net-zero emissions by 2035 and the microgrid is part of the plan to get it there.”

‘Human Trafficking Prevention Month’

This week, I joined County Council President Gabe Albornoz in proclaiming January as “Human Trafficking Prevention Month” in Montgomery County. Slavery and human trafficking are often considered a historic problem, but there are more people trapped in modern slavery today than at any other point in history.

This is a global problem. It is estimated that 20.9 million people are trafficked worldwide, and 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by human trafficking, accounting for 71 percent of all victims.

Human Trafficking Prevention Month is a time for us to educate ourselves and our friends, family, and colleagues about human trafficking. We need to do this because awareness is key for prevention.

Montgomery County has a Human Trafficking Prevention Committee that meets the third Wednesday of every month. I encourage your awareness, engagement, and participation in our efforts to combat Human Trafficking in Montgomery County.

Korean American Day

I was pleased to participate virtually this week to honor Korean American day and to use it to recognize the immense contributions of Korean Americans to our County. According to recent Census data, an estimated 14,000 Korean Americans and immigrants live in our county. Montgomery County is grateful for our Korean community’s contributions to our diversity, economic strength and spirit of volunteerism.

I am very appreciative to all the community engagement efforts and support the Korean community has provided throughout the pandemic.

We thrive because of our diversity and our commitment to equal opportunity and inclusion. We continue to invest and expanded community engagement and translation services in the Korean language to better serve the community. And I continue to proudly stand with them against hate and bias against Koreans and all our Asian immigrant communities.

MLK Day/Voting Rights

Next Monday we will honor the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day holiday and National Day of Service. For more than a decade, the Montgomery County Volunteer Center has brought thousands of area residents together for an afternoon full of volunteer activities featured at its large-scale MLK Day of Service event. However, due to COVID-19, this year, like last year, the event has gone largely virtual and expanded to a week, with a variety of home-based and safely distanced service opportunities available online at the Montgomery County Volunteer Center.

The Volunteer Center’s 2022 MLK service event runs Jan. 15-22 and offers residents of all ages the opportunity to honor the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by participating in remote service projects that help others in our community. All event activities are free, but registration is required, and space is limited for some projects.

As we honor Dr. King by serving our community, we should also recommit ourselves to founding principle and pillar of the civil rights movement – and that is the right to vote. Since last Jan. 6, there have been more than 200 laws passed throughout this nation with the intent to suppress and obstruct voting rights. I am pleased that President Biden endorsed changing Senate rules this week to pass new federal voting rights legislation that will help protect our democracy.

President Biden asked during his speech on voting rights this week in Georgia – “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? These are important questions every American should be asking as we think about and honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend. It matters what side we are on.

We Lost a Great Member of Our Community

Finally, I want to note the passing of Tufail Ahmad. Tufail was a pillar in our community and a major presence in the Muslim community. I knew him for more than 20 years, as a tireless leader for justice and as gentle and compassionate a human being that I ever had the honor of working with. He saw us as all as part of the human family, he worked tirelessly for everyone in Montgomery County and never grew weary of striving to do more and better. I will miss him as a friend and partner in the work to build a more just and understanding society, and Montgomery County will miss him as someone who always strove to be the best person that he could be. With love and memories of his infectious smile, we will remember him. May peace be with you and those you loved.

As always, my appreciation for all of you,
Marc Elrich
County Executive