Uncertainty looms in Montgomery County Health Department as search for new chief health officer continues

FOX 5 learned on Monday, as the search continues to find Montgomery County’s next chief health officer, the deputy health officer is allowed to step-in – and must obtain sign-off from the Prince George’s County’s Chief Health Officer on orders.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Montgomery County leaders address quarantine issues in schools

FOX 5 inquired more about this policy, which we were told is "standard operating procedure," and learned this only pertains to matters where the we’re told the deputy health officer may decide to go through the court system in order to require someone quarantine. 

The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson affirmed this has nothing to do with the county’s Board of Health. The deputy health officer cannot make county COVID orders.

"Because the deputy health officer (serving as acting while we’re searching for a new health officer) is not an MD, we would work with Dr. Carter from @PGCHealth for medical orders requiring a physician’s signature," DHHS tweeted in response.

The person who will eventually be hired to replace retired Chief Health Officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, must be an MD in this situation, according to the DHHS spokesperson.

READ MORE: School COVID-19 quarantine policies cause confusion as students head back to class following Labor Day

The questions over who is leading the health department come as health officials and school leaders are expected to testify before the Montgomery County Council in Tuesday briefing.  This briefing will be one of several held on the council’s first session of the Fall 2021 season.

Already, parents are voicing their frustration and concerns – questioning whether this briefing will actually result in an adequate oversight. Many parents are especially concerned with MCPS’ restrictive quarantine policy and the lack of medical professionals planning to testify on Wednesday, now that county’s chief health officer has resigned.

"I think maybe there’s confusion about what type of, you know, briefing it is. This is just briefing for council members and the public about how we got here," said County Council President Tom Hucker on Monday, "Again, the board of health doesn’t have any real authority over MCPS COVID guidance. Obviously, we could do that in the future and the Board of Education, which has the legal authority in this case, could ,you know, could do that as well. It’s very typical for us to have our own in-house experts and council staff to pose questions to the administration and to MCPS and get their answers – and I doubt we’ll do everything in this one briefing."

On concerns about whether the council will bring-in an outside medical expert given Dr. Gayles is no longer with the county, Hucker responded, "If we need to bring outside experts, that’s not done with every conventional briefing, but they could do that as well."

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"If we have a rapid test in the schools, that is going to alleviate a lot of the concern but it doesn’t solve these instances where were putting these other kids in quarantine just based on another family’s personal choice," said Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations President, Cynthia Simonson. Simonson said many parents are hoping to hear a clear explanation for the MCPS quarantine policy from Tuesday’s briefing. 

They also want better "return to classroom guidance."  Simonson said many parents still are not clear on after the rapid test, parents should still seek a PCR-test before child can return to school safely.  

MCPS confirmed according to their latest figures, 1,423 students are currently at home (in quarantine) due to a COVID-related absence. Around 109 students were reportedly sent home with a Covid related symptom(s) and 644 students are currently in quarantine due to a close contact with a positive person. 

This means around half of the students sent home were placed in quarantine without showing symptoms or being confirmed as someone in close contact with a positive person.  

The excessive quarantines is why MCPS began rapid testing this week.

In Fairfax County, Va., where only those in contact with a confirmed COVID contact are being sent home, the numbers of those in quarantine are much lower. An MCPS spokesperson says 340 students and 53 staff members were placed in quarantine from August 13 to September 9.

The FCPS also has its COVID-19 dashboard up, where parents can see the number of daily positive cases in schools – and which schools are reporting positive cases. The dashboard also shows whether the positive case is a teacher or student.

The MCPS site on COVID19 includes letters sent to school communities of a COVID19 case – although it does not report how many and makes you dig for some of those letters. The actual dashboard provides county COVID-specific data, instead of school-specific data.

The MCPS spokesperson told FOX 5 via email: "Yes, we are working on making updates to the dashboard to provide more information on quarantines and positive cases. Since contact tracing takes place at the school level, it is critically important for parents to let their school administration know about their child’s symptoms or positive tests. There is no central hotline given that a very detailed process must take place at the school level."