Oct 28, 2021 - COVID

Montgomery Co. drops its mask mandate

Illustration of a covid mask fading left to right.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Montgomery County, Maryland dropped its indoor mask mandate Thursday after community spread levels dropped to moderate transmission for 7 consecutive days, per the CDC's criteria.

Montgomery County is now one of the only counties in the DMV region to meet the CDC's definition of moderate transmission levels, an achievement that county officials on Wednesday linked to public health measures.

Driving the news: While the indoor mask mandate is lifted, businesses are still allowed to implement their own directives, County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday.

  • Masks are still required in schools and on public transportation in the county.

Elrich emphasized that the pandemic is not yet over and urged unvaccinated people to continue to mask up.

  • “The thing I would urge people to think about is we've got these numbers by doing these things. There's lots of COVID still out there, enough that people should be worried about it,” Elrich said.

By the numbers: Counties with low or moderate community transmission have fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over 7 consecutive days, according to CDC criteria.

  • Neighboring Maryland counties Montgomery and Howard both have moderate community transmission. Just over 90% of Montgomery County's eligible population is fully vaccinated and just over 88% of Howard County's eligible population is.
  • Per CDC criteria, D.C., Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince George's County have substantial community transmission.

In D.C., the 7-day average case count is 82 daily cases as the District sees a decline similar to that seen during the spring vaccine rollout and the start of the summer months, according to a DC Health data analysis by DCCovidData.com.

  • Hospitalizations have also steadily dropped over the past month, while daily vaccination rates have continued to plateau since the start of the summer.
  • Per the CDC, just over 68% of D.C.'s eligible population is fully vaccinated, but vaccination rates continue to vary widely across the city's eight wards.

Be smart: Neil Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland, says Montgomery County using CDC metrics to determine when to drop their indoor mask mandate likely contributed to their fall in cases.

  • He does, however, also point out that the county is home to major federal agencies, including the NIH, which have their own vaccine mandates — likely contributing to the county's overall vaccination rate.
  • But an uptick in transmission is possible, Sehgal says, as the weather turns and vaccination and transmission rates vary across the entire region, a point Elrich also echoed Wednesday.
  • “I remain concerned that we could be heading for another spike in our numbers as the weather gets colder and activities and gatherings move inside and this virus continues to mutate,” Elrich said.

Yes, but: Steps on the vaccine front, particularly towards vaccinating young children might provide further inroads out of the pandemic, says David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

  • The FDA's vaccine advisors recently approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in children aged 5-11, a step towards authorization of the vaccine.
  • DCist reported that the District has allocated 18,000 doses to young children.
  • Meanwhile, many fully vaccinated people are eligible for their booster shots.

But both Dowdy and Sehgal say getting kids vaccinated and booster shots may not tip the scale as much as getting currently eligible unvaccinated adults their shots.

Sehgal adds that this doesn't just mean pushing for people to get vaccinated, but expanding access to vaccination for those who want them. The most vaccinated parts of the region, he says, tend to be the wealthiest and most well-resourced.

  • “We need to address social and systemic inequities if we want Southeast D.C. to be as vaccinated as Montgomery County,” Sehgal says.

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