Weekly Message from the County Executive Marc Elrich

by Patrick Herron
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Per Montgomery County:


Dear Friends,

As my last letter of 2021, I do have some reflections about our accomplishments this year that I want to share with you, including a special video this week, but I’d first like to give you an update on COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. For more news and developments, you can watch my weekly media briefing here. This week I was joined by our public health team and Dr. Ann Burke, vice president of Medical Affairs and interim chief clinical officer for Holy Cross Hospital. I also spoke with Fox 5 DC, which you can watch here.

County COVID Cases Hit Record High

We are ending 2021 with a surge of COVID cases at a level we have not seen since the beginning of the pandemic. Our current case rate is 803 cases per 100,000 residents, this is more than 10 times the case rate from the start of this month!

Our test-positivity rate is more than 14 percent, a dramatic increase in just three weeks. While Montgomery County’s rate is lower than the state average, this is a place where we did not expect to be, especially with such a highly vaccinated population.

It is clear that vaccinations help reduce the severity for people who are infected and because of the high vaccination rate – currently at 83 percent of our population fully vaccinated, we are in a better position to deal with this surge than many other jurisdictions around the country.

Testing Locations Overloaded and Rapid Tests Are on the Way

As many of you may know, the Omicron surge has created an enormous demand for tests – both polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) tests generally available at our county and partner sites and for rapid tests. We have been trying for weeks to acquire additional rapid tests, which were promised to arrive but have not, but I am pleased to announce that we ordered a million rapid tests from a different company, and we are to receive our first shipment of 300,000 of them next week. We appreciate the District of Columbia for assisting us in securing these tests and our procurement team for their diligence to track down and acquire these tests. They can’t arrive here soon enough. While 300,000 tests seems like a lot, with a population of more than one million, we are going to make sure these tests will be given out equitably throughout the County, prioritizing our students, school staff and other front line, public facing workers. We know that these tests are in great demand, and we will share information on how to access them as soon as we have that information.
County Hospitals Strained from COVID-19 Surge and Staffing Concerns

Montgomery County hospitals are seeing an influx of COVID patients that are at levels not seen since last winter’s surge.

Not only are our hospitals seeing a dramatic increase in patients with COVID-19, they are also facing their own staffing shortages. And we expect these numbers to get worse before they get better. It is important to note that residents should not seek routine COVID-19 testing at our hospitals. Not only does it harm their ability to provide services, but also sitting in a hospital emergency room isn’t the safest place to be with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. However, if you have an emergency, please do not hesitate to go to the hospital emergency room; just don’t go there for routine testing and procedures.

I am hoping that Governor Hogan will reinstate the public health emergency that the Maryland Hospital Association is calling for. This action will greatly help our hospitals dealing with this surge. I also agree with Tom Perez who recently called on Governor Hogan to extend hazard pay to our state’s front-line workforce and that the governor should use federally provided American Rescue Plan Act funds to extend hazard pay to non-state-government essential employees – such as healthcare workers, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers. The state is sitting on a $6 billion surplus, and hazard pay for these essential workers would be a tiny fraction of this enormous surplus.

COVID-19 Surge Cases Impact Staffing of MCFRS

We have also seen these COVID cases impacting our own government staffing. This week, the Montgomery County Fire and Recuse Service (MCFRS) announced that 110 career and 23 volunteer personnel are unable to report to work, in addition to approximately 75 MCFRS staff who are unable to report to work due to other occupational health issues or injuries. As a result, the department is experiencing a 9 percent reduction in staff that will require some adjustments to meet service demands.

To continue providing high-quality emergency services to the community, MCFRS has taken the following steps to mitigate the impact of these staffing shortages:

  • Added recently graduated firefighters, all who came to MCFRS with firefighter and EMT experience, to full shifts, which will augment daily staffing.
  • Reassigned firefighters and paramedics currently in training to their community service responsibilities.
  • Created an EMS “disposition officer” to ensure load balancing at the local emergency departments
  • Requested volunteer partners to staff additional peak time transport units, adding additional transport capacity to the system.
  • Prioritized Advanced Life Support care delivery and firefighting water delivery across the County.
  • And temporarily redeployed staff from one ladder truck (the Clarksburg Aerial Tower) and one heavy rescue unit (the Laytonsville Rescue Squad).
 

Keeping Our Children as Safe as Possible

As our schools return next next week from their holiday break, I am encouraging parents to please get their kids vaccinated as soon as possible. The chart below shows that Montgomery County is doing better at pediatric vaccination than the rest of the state, but only about 50 percent of our pediatric population has had their first dose and about 1/3 are fully vaccinated.

Our public health team has been in conversations with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) this week to prepare for the scheduled return of students next week. MCPS just announced their plans for next week which you can read about here. I know that parents, teachers, principals, and school staff have a number of concerns, and we will continue to support the school system to help with the complicated public health, logistical and educational issues involved in the effort to preserve in-person learning as much as possible. As noted above, we will prioritize getting rapid tests to the schools for staff and students.

Libraries Slows Rollout of Extended Hours

In an abundance of caution, we have decided to postpone opening our libraries on Sundays. Hopefully the Omicron surge passes quickly, and we will then be able to have Sunday hours.

Last Chance to Apply For Current Round of Rental Relief

The Montgomery County’s Emergency Rental Assistance program’s COVID Rent Relief Program application portal will temporarily pause from taking new applications at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 31. We are taking this pause in order to have an application process that complies with new federal guidelines. Applications submitted before the deadline will be reviewed and processed, but no additional applications will be received after that time. An additional round of rent-relief funding, with an updated application process and eligibility criteria will be announced in early 2022. To submit a rent relief application, please go to www.mc311.com/rentrelief

We have given out $49.7 million of the $59.5 million we were allocated, or 83.5 percent, from the nearly 11,000 applications for rental relief that we have received thus far. With applications continuing to be processed, we expect to exhaust our current funds from the current application pool and those who submit their applications by Dec. 31. As we prepare to launch the next round of assistance and wait for the next round of funding from the federal government, we want to assure the public that we are not stopping or ending providing rental relief to our residents in need.

In fact, Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services rental relief operations has been one of the most robust in the nation in terms of processing and distributing these funds. For residents facing eviction and utility cutoffs, we will continue to provide assistance; so even though this particular portal is closing temporarily, eviction and utility assistance will still be available. Please call 311 during business hours, so we can help.

Help Us Better Serve You

This week, we launched our biennial online survey of County residents. The survey is available on the County website and is designed to get residents’ assessment of the local government, its services and their quality of life. The survey will be open until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 17. The survey is available to be accessed here.

I encourage all residents of Montgomery County to take this survey. We want to ensure that the feedback we get is inclusive and reflects the County’s diversity and we want everyone to have an opportunity to share their opinions with County Government on the services we provide. The pandemic required us to make some significant changes to the way we deliver some services. This survey is one way for us to assess how we are doing, what people think of the changes we made, and identify areas for improvement.

Celebrate the New Year with Caution

As we deal with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, we expect that the next few weeks will continue to see a rise in cases due to New Year celebration outbreaks. I hope that everyone keeps their New Year’s festivities and gatherings small and safe. If you are going out to celebrate New Year’s, please be smart. Get tested before you go out and after you celebrate. Wear masks at indoor gatherings and confined spaces where you are sharing the same air. And please do not drink and drive. Our police will be out and looking for impaired drivers.

Looking Back on 2021

As we conclude 2021, we wanted to share with you some of our important achievements. Instead of my weekly video, we created a Top 10 Accomplishments of 2021 video that I hope you take the time to watch.

Despite the widespread distribution of the vaccine in 2021 that gave us great hope, unfortunately this year is ending with a bit of a question mark with one of the largest COVID case surges that our County, state, and nation has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

Even with some ongoing challenges, the residents, businesses, nonprofits, and faith communities of Montgomery County, along with the tireless efforts of the employees of the Montgomery County government employees, have enabled this County to persevere. From achieving one of the highest vaccination rates and lowest case rates amongst large jurisdictions in our nation to distributing food, clothing, rental relief, and grants to our businesses, we have created an environment that takes this pandemic seriously, responds effectively, and assists those who are struggling the most from its impacts.

My administration, along with our colleagues on the County Council and at the state and federal level, have worked tirelessly to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance and resources during this pandemic. With the Working Families Income Supplement, we provided more than $100 million in financial assistance to low- and moderate-income families. We partnered with more than 100 food assistance providers. We distributed almost $60 million in rental relief with more to come — protecting our most vulnerable families from eviction. And when small businesses needed help, we responded, providing grants to over 5,500 businesses to help them keep their doors open during this pandemic.

We also continued to make progress on our pre-COVID goals and agenda. This year, we finalized our Climate Action Plan and took steps toward our Reimagining Public Safety Efforts. We launched our No Net Loss Affordable Housing Program as well as governed through an “equity lens” by providing a racial equity analysis for the Capitol Improvement Budget and producing over 40 Racial Equity Impact Assessments on supplemental budget appropriations.

And Montgomery County had a record setting year for our economy. County businesses received over $18 billion in private investment, a fourfold increase, along with hundreds of millions of county funds going to infrastructure in every part of our county.

2021 may have tested our will, but Montgomery County demonstrated its resilience and determination to succeed and achieve greatness.

As always, my sincere appreciation for your support and everything you do. I wish you and your families a very safe, healthy, and prosperous 2022.

Marc Elrich
County Executive

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