As the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise across Montgomery County, the County Council plans to spend $250,000 on masks and face coverings that can be distributed to vulnerable residents and nonprofit service providers in the community.
Those include people who are medically vulnerable, residents in senior living/nursing facilities, child care providers, senior citizens, transit riders, and residents in affordable housing communities. The funds could also potentially cover other personal protective equipment.
The masks that the county will purchase will be washable and reusable. Any unused masks and face coverings will be stockpiled for future public health emergencies.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, issued a directive on April 9 that required customers and employees in grocery stores, pharmacies, farmers markets, and large chain retail stores to wear face coverings.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines on face coverings and directions on how to make them.
Susie Sinclair-Smith, CEO of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, said Wednesday that the nonprofit has received an outpouring of mask donations from the community and contributions from the county.
Before April, staff members were scrambling to find enough personal protective equipment for the men’s homeless shelter on Taft Court in Rockville because the coalition’s regular vendors ran out of supplies.
“It was a real shock for us,” Sinclair-Smith said.
The first donation of 4,000 surgical masks came on April 9 from the Maryland Lyric Opera.
“April 9 was a turning point for us,” Sinclair-Smith said. “We were in dire need before that.”
The Coalition for the Homeless, which is housing 200 men in several locations, has designated isolation rooms for those experiencing coronavirus symptoms and some have been placed in hotels, she said.
Although the shelter has the masks it needs now, that could change within days, she said.
“We will continue to need a regular supply,” she said.
At the council’s meeting on Tuesday, officials also decided to put $100,000 in a grant fund for county businesses that switch their operations to making personal protective equipment, such as masks.
Both amounts — the $250,000 for masks and the $100,000 for grants — will be taken from the general fund reserves.
The $100,000 will support the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, or MCEDC, in helping local businesses retrofit their production lines to manufacture personal protective equipment.
MCEDC will match the funds with $100,000 and seek private funding, as well.
During a public hearing on Tuesday, two county residents spoke in support of the county purchasing face masks for vulnerable residents. Both spoke through a Spanish translator.
Resident Martha Leiva said she was glad to hear masks and gloves could be distributed throughout the community to help stop the spread of the virus.
Leiva asked the council to distribute personal protective equipment in public places, such as grocery stores and to people who use public transportation on buses and the Metro.
Gaithersburg resident Diana Godoy asked the council to aggressively release information on the importance of wearing and proper disposal of face coverings and gloves in the immigrant and Latino communities.
It’s important that face coverings are distributed in areas of the county that have the most infections, she said.
Data released from the Maryland Department of Health on Wednesday morning showed that the top five ZIP code areas with the most cases in Montgomery County are in the Silver Spring area:
The top five include:
• 20904, with 253 cases
• 20906, with 251 cases
• 20902, with 218 cases
• 20910, with 137 cases
• 20901, with 134 cases.
The ZIP code areas with high cases should be prioritized, but the rest of the county should also be considered for mask distribution, Godoy said.
Council Member Hans Riemer, who worked on the appropriation requests with Council Member Gabe Albornoz, said at the meeting that Godoy’s and Leiva’s testimony matched why the council was working to help protect residents’ health.
“These funds will enable the county to purchase [face coverings] and distribute them through networks that will hopefully reach into your communities as well,” he told Leiva and Godoy.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.