As we continue to deal with this recent Omicron surge and about to enter our third year of dealing with the pandemic, we must not lose sight of our long-term goals and priorities to ensure that we are a stronger Montgomery County after the pandemic than we were before it began. Somewhat lost in the news this week, was the release of my recommended fiscal year (FY) 23 Capital Budget and Recommended FY23-28 Capital Improvements Program (CIP).
With increased investments in our schools, affordable housing, early care centers for our youngest children, facilities to address barriers to residents’ well-being, and maintenance of core infrastructure, this CIP strengthens the resiliency of County government, our local economy, and the residents we serve. This is the first full Montgomery County CIP Budget recommendations developed under an equity lens framework and includes major efforts to address climate change, reduce our carbon footprint and improve resiliency.
I encourage you to look at our investments in this recommended capital budget by clicking here. I look forward to working with the County Council as we provide further recommendations relating to current revenue and other CIP initiatives that will be provided once I have finalized my FY23 Operating Budget recommendations, which will be transmitted on March 15.
COVID-19 Cases Decreasing, But Community Transmission Remains High
As far as our COVID-19 numbers this week, we are seeing reductions in both our test positivity and case rates. Our positivity is currently about 10 percentage points lower and case rates are down about 40 percent from our recent peaks during this current surge. Although these numbers are going in a better direction – they are still among the highest we have seen throughout the pandemic, and our case rate is over eight times higher than a month ago. We still have a long way to go just to get back to where we were just a short time ago.
The number of hospital beds being used by patients with COVID-19 is also dropping. It is the lowest number in two weeks, and it is welcome news for our hospitals and frontline healthcare workers. However, our hospital-bed utilization is still six times higher than it was at the beginning of last month. Unfortunately, the number of COVID-19 deaths per day is still on the increase; but with our County’s high vaccination rate, we are seeing significantly fewer deaths than the State average: Montgomery County represents 17 percent of the state population but we account for only 8 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 this month. This clearly shows the importance of being vaccinated and boosted.
Libraries Distributing Free N-95 Masks
This week, we announced, that starting on Friday, Jan. 21, we will be giving away N-95 masks at our libraries during rapid test distribution hours. Having these higher quality face masks as compared to simple face coverings, drastically increases protection.
Montgomery County residents can pick up free N95 masks at 19 County library branches beginning Jan. 21. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated the mask guidance to emphasize protection to prevent the spread of COVID-19. N-95, KN-95 and KF-94 respirators are masks that have been shown to provide higher levels of protection against COVID-19. Residents may pick up four ZYB-11 masks (a brand of N-95 mask) per person at any one of 19 County libraries. Supplies are limited and the masks will be available on a first come, first served basis.
We have these masks available in our stockpile because we planned, and I am very thankful for our Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, and Procurement teams for their work. And I am grateful to our Montgomery County Public Libraries for ensuring this distribution system is effective, efficient, and equitable.
Nearly 800,000 Take Home Rapid Tests Given Away Thus Far
Our rapid take home test distribution system has been a great success. We have distributed more than 792,000 kits to the public, including to Montgomery County Public Schools, childcare providers, community partners, at-risk populations and more. And of that amount we have given out over 300,000 tests directly to our residents at our County libraries in just over a week and half. Those are incredible numbers!
In the first week since the launch of the portal to report tests, we have had over 900 residents report their test results. We want to continue encourage residents to use this portal and please let us know when you test positive. It helps us better understand and identify where this virus is spreading in our community.
I am also pleased that the federal government is mailing free at-home COVID-19 tests now and I encourage all Montgomery County residents to order these tests at https://www.covidtests.gov/. Although we have ordered many more tests and are still waiting for 60 percent of our shipments to arrive, we continue to discourage hoarding of rapid tests so everyone can access them, and utilizing all opportunities, such as this offer from the federal government, so that every Montgomery County home can have these tests on hand.
Protecting Our Health Staff
I am joining my fellow County Executives and the Maryland Association of Counties in supporting the passage of a State bill before the Maryland General Assembly that would make it a crime to threaten a public health official or hospital staff member. Our public health officials have been subjected to a lot of scary threats and that should not be tolerated. According to a recent study by the CDC, 23.4 percent of public health workers surveyed reported “feeling bullied, threatened or harassed” because of their work.
Our County’s own health officials have been regularly subject to threats and harassment. What doesn’t make sense is that Maryland law provides protections for local elected officials, like me, making it a crime for residents to threaten or intimidate them or otherwise impede their public responsibilities. However, Maryland does not extend these protections to other nonelected officials who perform administrative or oversight roles, but who may suffer the same sort of potentially dangerous feedback from irate residents. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to intimidate them or to threaten them with violence. I hope this bill passes and for the sake of not only ensuring our civility and humanity, but also for the peace of mind our healthcare heroes and their families deserve. I encourage you to support this bill, too.
Protecting Our Houses of Worship
Last weekend, the world witnessed another terror event targeted at a faith community when a British national took a rabbi and three other people hostage inside a Texas synagogue. Montgomery County stands in solidarity with the Jewish community and against this horrific incident, which took place yesterday during the Sabbath: a day of prayer, rest, and peace. We are grateful to law enforcement for the safe return of those who were held hostage and our thoughts go out to the members of this synagogue and our entire Jewish community.
This incident has understandably shaken up our faith community and renewed concerns we have seen frequently over the past several years of terror attacks on houses of worship. This fear amongst our synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches is something that we take very seriously.
Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in the State that provides grant opportunities from our own coffers to help houses of worship afford increased security. The freedom of assembly is a sacred Constitutional right and should be free from fear of violence. Whether it is through the Montgomery County Police Department, our Community Engagement Cluster, or our Regional Offices, we are here to support the safety of all our houses of worship.
This week, we announce the launch of the Montgomery County Electric Vehicle Purchasing Cooperative – or “EVPC.” This new initiative that will help us move faster toward wide-spread use of zero-emission vehicles by making it easier for our residents and businesses to adopt EV technology and reap the benefits, including lower operating costs and of course, lower emissions.
I have set a goal that 1,000 Montgomery County residents and 50 businesses will take the EV Pledge this year. Community members and businesses who take the pledge will help demonstrate demand for electric vehicles here in Montgomery County. They will be sending a signal to the market that we’re ready to “Lead the EV Charge.” This show of support will also serve as the foundation for a full-scale EV purchasing cooperative, where the County will work with auto manufacturers and dealers to negotiate favorable pricing for EV purchases and leases on behalf of community members who have taken the pledge.
If it were not for the pandemic, Climate Change would be the number-one crisis facing our County, our nation, and our planet. Montgomery County’s Climate Action Plan calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2027, and 100 percent by 2035. To achieve these goals, we need to transition our transportation system away from fossil fuels.
I am challenging the residents and businesses of Montgomery County to pledge that their next vehicle will be a new or pre-owned electric vehicle - an “EV.” All the information on the EVPC pilot program is on our Zero-Emissions Vehicle website: MontgomeryCountyMD.gov/ZEV - where you can take the EV Pledge, and invite friends, neighbors, and local businesses to take the pledge as well.
We Continue to Be “Snow” Grateful
We have already had several significant snowfalls this month, with more snow on the way. I want to thank everyone on our snow team and, specifically our snowplow drivers. Clearing our roads in hazardous weather is a very difficult job even in the best of circumstances. But with staffing shortages and challenges due to the pandemic, our Montgomery County Department of Transportation, Emergency Management, and all of our first responders are doing a great job dealing with this winter weather and keeping all of us safe.
Please continue to monitor the weather, sign up for County text alerts, and be prepared with all the essentials that you may need in case you lose power.
As always, my appreciation for all of you,