Health experts say Montgomery County is not in a 'good place' as COVID-19 numbers climb

During a weekly virtual briefing with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and the county's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard, leaders discussed that the county is not in a ‘good place’ when it comes to the number of COVID-19 cases, and in turn, not in a good place to reopen schools either.

Despite those concerns, many parents are continuing to push county public schools’ leaders to go back to in-person learning. 

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On Wednesday evening, parents with the community group called ‘Together Again MCPS,’ held a “Rally for a Plan” event with the hopes of getting that message across. More than a dozen parents and their children gathered at MCPS's main offices on Hungerford Drive before marching toward MD-355.

“I understand the frustration, I understand the desire to go back to school, I was a school teacher,” said Elrich during the weekly briefing Wednesday. “I fully understand what an amazing challenge this has to be to do this but this is a risk of putting people at the risk of becoming sick again. I hear from some people saying, ‘Oh kids don’t get sick don’t worry about it,’. Kids may not get that sick but they spread it to adults.”

The county has had a test positivity rate of below five percent but health leaders said that the number of cases per 100,000, is going up. Elrich said the county is “in heavy transmission mode.”

“To be blunt, these numbers would not have lead to an opening,” said Elrich. “It would not have happened, it didn’t happen. Our numbers that were once considered not safe to open suddenly become safe to do things, is a little bit beyond me and particularly the cases per 100,000.”

During the briefing, Gayles acknowledged the fact that there is some conflicting material for schools to use as a reference, including guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and from the state, but that the county has given MCPS the county’s own guidance to be utilized in order to develop a plan. A part of that plan was released Tuesday night which includes a metrics chart to explain provisions and parameters within which the school system would bring students back, including options for bringing back small groups or focusing on specific special populations.

When asked if increased testing could be the reason why the county is seeing a rise in cases, Gayles explained that when there is more testing conducted then the reality is finding more cases, particularly those who are asymptotic. He added it’s important to note that the county was doing just as much testing back in June and July and health experts were not noticing that many cases. Cases, which he said are continuing to be more than 100 on an almost daily basis within the last few weeks and days.

“When we say special populations, we are talking about groups of students facing extraordinary challenges to virtual learning caused by COVID-19,” explained MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala in an emailed statement to FOX 5’s Ayesha Khan:

“What our grid is demonstrating is that, for example, we can bring group 1 back between 5 and 10 cases. If we see rates increasing, we would consider moving groups back to mainly virtual or hybrid just for some groups. When we are below 5, we would be bringing students back in groups.

As of right now, Montgomery County is at a 7 day average of 12.2 , which is increasing. 

We remain committed to bringing students back and ask the members of the community continue to abide by best practices for health and safety to help bring these numbers down – wear a face covering; wash hands frequently; physically distance; avoid large gatherings.”

The Montgomery County Board of Education is expected to introduce its recommendations for plans to reopen schools at a discussion on Nov. 6 and 10.