County Council members will convene as the Board of Health, likely in early January, to determine whether Montgomery County’s indoor mask mandate needs to be tweaked.
Currently, the county will automatically lift its indoor mask mandate at 12:01 a.m. the day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 data tracker says 85% of its total population is fully vaccinated. As of Wednesday, that tracker showed 81.9% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated.
People are considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after they have received the two-dose series of either the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines, or the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview Wednesday that the Board of Health would likely meet Jan. 4 to review the current order involving the indoor mask mandate.
Health officials have said they don’t anticipate the county will reach the 85% vaccination rate threshold by that date. If the county does, Albornoz said the board would probably “pivot” in order to avoid a “boomerang” or “yo-yo effect” of the mask mandate being lifted, then quickly reinstated by any potential new health order.
Albornoz said he is interested in checking the rate of hospitalizations over the next couple of weeks, but added he and others will rely on the county’s public health officials when considering any new mandate.
“The writing is on the wall that we’re entering another challenging phase of the virus, but we have a lot more information and resources now,” Albornoz said.
County Executive Marc Elrich and health officials told reporters at a news briefing Wednesday that the 85% vaccination metric is perhaps an indication of what was thought to be “herd immunity.” That goal is now tougher to achieve with the spread of coronavirus variants and more breakthrough cases in people who are vaccinated—though vaccination appears to keep people from developing serious illnesses and needing to be hospitalized, they said.
Regarding any potential tweak to the mask mandate, James Bridgers, the county’s health officer, said there are multiple data points to consider, including the number of hospitalizations, case rates, vaccination rates, and the spread of the delta and omicron variants.
Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard emphasized that the Board of Health has the final say on any changes to the indoor mask mandate. Stoddard added that it would be “premature” to comment on any specific changes, as the holidays could have an impact on the spread of the virus in the county and it’s unclear how much the rate of hospitalization and other health metrics may change between now and the board’s meeting.
It’s possible, however, that county health officials will begin to use the number of hospitalizations as a more critical measure, versus case rates and other metrics, he said.
“There’s a lot that will change over the next three weeks and will heavily influence both the data that is shared with the County Council, and also potential recommendations,” Stoddard said. “But [the] point is generally well taken that as we get further into this response, hospitalizations should continue to matter a lot, and more—but that we will not negate the considerations of…long COVID [cases] and the other issues that we also are aware of.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com