Weekly Message from the County Executive Marc Elrich: COVID-19 Community Status and More

by Patrick Herron

Per Montgomery County:

Dear Friends,

The most important data point we have consistently monitored since the beginning of the COVID-19 health crisis is the stress that our hospitals are experiencing due to significant increase in patients who need care. When our hospitals are too overwhelmed, patients have to deal with long delays before receiving care or getting a beds when they have urgent needs. I think about what happened to former Councilmember Craig Rice’s mother last year after suffering a heart attack and worry about how many more families have gone through something similar. Our ambulance turn-around times at the hospital have slowed down, potentially taking lifesaving services off the street for longer periods of time.

These are real world consequences when our COVID, flu, RSV and other health maladies impact our hospitals. This week, during my weekly media briefing, Patsy McNeil, the chief medical officer at Adventist Health, shared how her hospitals have capacity issues, staffing shortages and how they impact the health care system. The surge in COVID patients is difficult for staff and is a strain on resources. Her comments mirror what we have seen throughout our community with fewer people taking the virus seriously and not protecting themselves and others.

It is not just one hospital. This week, the Maryland Hospital Association reported a 90 percent capacity rate, with some hospitals already completely full.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year developed the community level status barometer, two-thirds of which is based on how busy hospitals are with COVID patients. For several weeks, our community status has been at the “medium” level, but now we are dangerously close to reaching the “high” category. We are still not close to the transmission levels we saw last winter, but we are trending that way again.

Emergency room data shows a recent spike of more than 300 visits to local hospitals, which is a high we have not seen since the peak of the Omicron surge last winter.

Montgomery County was the first major jurisdiction to reach, and then surpass, the 90 percent full vaccination rate. However, less than one in three eligible residents have gotten the bivalent booster, which is the best defense against COVID-19.

All we have to do is look back over the last several weeks to see the impact. December was our worst month for COVID deaths in Montgomery County in nearly a year.

In response, we are going to focus on how we can increase our outreach to vulnerable communities. Data tells us more than half of our 65-and-over population has received a bivalent, which is good news because they are among the most vulnerable. But we have a lot more work to do with young people and our Black and Latino residents.

We are at a point in the pandemic where vaccines are widely available, but many have tuned out or just do not realize how much protection the new booster provides.

These are numerous studies that show the effectiveness and safety of the retooled vaccine meant to target the Omicron variant. It is still effective despite the fact that we are seeing more subvariants like the X.BB.1.5 accounting for more cases.

Beyond vaccines and boosters, voluntary facemask use in indoor public places is strongly recommended. Facemasks should be worn in health care and congregate sites like shelters and nursing homes. Other safety measures like washing your hands frequently and staying home if you are sick can help stop the spread of disease. Mild and even moderate cases of COVID can be treated at home after consulting a family doctor and do not necessarily mean a trip to the hospital is required.

Let’s remain vigilant and keep everyone’s health in mind as many activities and gatherings are going to be indoors. Please consider those in our hospitals and on the frontlines. Get boosted. Get tested. Wear your mask when appropriate. And, continue to wash your hands regularly.

Preparing for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration

On Monday, Jan. 16, we will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Despite it being a holiday, the idea is to not treat it like a “day off,” but as a “day on” to volunteer, participate in community service and take action to serve and assist neighbors and those most in need.

In Montgomery County, we are not just honoring Dr. King for a day, but an entire “Week of Service” from Jan. 16-21. Please follow this link to find out about some of the many projects happening that you can participate in. I encourage everyone to sign up for a service event set up by the Montgomery County Volunteer Center from noon until 3 p.m. at the Bethesda North Marriott Conference Center.

We are thankful for the many community groups that step up to organize volunteer days like this. The Montgomery County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. will host a service project at the Silver Spring Civic Building from 10 a.m.-noon. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Eta Pi Zeta Chapter will host a service project at the Bauer Drive Community Center in Rockville from 10 a.m.-noon. There will be a service project in Germantown hosted by Journey’s Crossing Church from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. This year will be the first time the organization will hold the event in-person since 2020. However, the church is offering a virtual option for service for those that are not able to participate in-person.

There also will be a free community concert at 4 p.m. Monday at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda in honor of the life-changing impact of Dr. King and his tireless work for equality. Each year, the Office of Human Rights settles on a theme for the performances. This year’s theme is “We Are Martin.”

Each of the performances will honor the theme and pay tribute to the positive impact Dr. King had on communities nationwide. We are asking concert goers to help those in need by donating toiletry items. Suggested items include portable shower caddies for carrying items, bars of soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, lotion, lip balm, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, new wash cloths and towels. Interfaith Works will use those donations to help in homeless shelters and others.

Tickets are free for Monday’s special event, but they must be reserved ahead of time through the Strathmore ticket system so everyone that wants a seat can have one.

I was fortunate to attend the 1963 March on Washington when I was 13 and witnessed Dr. King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time, I had no idea that his speech would become such one of the most remembered moments in history, but I was aware that the thoughts he conveyed were important for how we look at America going forward.

I am proud of the way so many in Montgomery County have embraced his ideals, commitment, compassion and commitment to justice. Please join us in celebrating Dr. King’s legacy next week.

Covid-19 Rental Relief Opportunities Closing

Applications for the Federal government’s Rent Relief Program intended to help families struggling with COVID challenges ends today, Friday, Jan. 13.

This program has helped approximately 14,000 households in Montgomery County receive $92 million dollars in assistance. However, the Federal government is no longer funding the program.

The County’s Department of Health and Human Services is closing the program to applicants because it is expected that the existing funding will be fully exhausted on approved applicants and current recipients.

We knew the Federal funds would not be enough, so I joined several County Executives and advocacy groups in asking Governor Hogan for emergency funding to help prevent the eviction of thousands of people. That help did not come.

It is unfortunate that the program is ending because there clearly is more need. The program excluded many families that were also struggling, but did not fit the parameters of qualifying for Federal assistance. That is too bad, and I hope that we will be able to help them with future different affordable housing and economic development growth.

As a County, we will continue to offer emergency eviction prevention services whether those hardships are COVID-related or not. For those in need of immediate help because of an eviction, we urge them to call 311 to request housing stabilization services or visit the Department of Housing and Community Affairs website.

Free Rec Passes for County Residents Now Available

Montgomery County Recreation created a buzz online in December with the announcement that passes to use recreation fitness centers would be free for County residents in 2023. Now it is time for County residents to take advantage of free passes. Check out this story from Fox 5 that aired last weekend about this program.

So far, we have had more than 7,500 people sign up for gym passes. This is up from only 40 during the first week of the year last January.

Signing up for a free fitness pass makes it easy for any County resident to work out close to home, near their office or at any center of the nearly two dozen locations.

Aquatic passes remain separate, and pool passes for anyone 10 and over remain available for all indoor pools.

Montgomery Recreation also is focused on Active Montgomery summer camps. Registration for those activities begins Jan. 17. These camps fill up quickly. Click here more information about the camps that we are offering this summer.

Radon Action Month

January is “National Radon Action Month.” The County’s Department of Environmental Protection is alerting residents to discounts available on radon testing kits.

Radon is an odorless and invisible gas that contains radiation. It can be released from rocks, soil and water exposed to deteriorating uranium in the soil. When it is trapped inside homes and families are exposed to radon over a long period of time, it can lead to serious health problems, especially for former smokers. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that radon is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths yearly.

A study done by the U.S. Geological Survey found that parts of Montgomery County did contain elevated amounts of radon in random testing, above what is considered acceptable amounts of natural occurrence. Since 2016, the EPA has recommended radon testing when preparing to buy or sell a home and after major renovations are done.

The Maryland Department of Environment has an online application you can use to order a kit for $3 if you provide your name, email address, home address and answer a few questions. More information is available at our Radon Awareness page. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about the dangers of radon and get a low-cost test kit to protect your loved ones.

Korean American Day

Korean American Day is today, Friday, Jan. 13. This year marks 120 years since South Korean immigrants first came to America. Montgomery County is grateful for the immense contributions of the Korean community. Residents of Korean descent make up 16 percent of our County’s Asian American-Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

Earlier this week, I hosted a meeting with community leaders including Maryland Senator Susan Lee and Consul General Kwon from the Korean Embassy. It comes in anticipation of the Lunar New Year celebrated by our Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese communities.

I am wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous Lunar New Year, which will be celebrated on Sunday, Jan. 22.

Maryland General Assembly Back to Work

There are certainly many things to look forward with the start of the 2023 Maryland General Assembly legislative session this week. I was in Annapolis for the first day of the session and plan to return regularly over the next 90 days to work with the outstanding legislators who represent Montgomery County as we advocate for greater resources to support projects and initiatives that will improve the quality of life for our residents.

The County will be seeking State assistance on critical projects to propel our growth and boost the economic engine of the State. Exciting planned projects include our Bus Rapid Transit system and the Institute on Health Computing. Building on the progress of the last legislative session, we will be working to increase State support for our comprehensive Bus Rapid Transit system to link more neighborhoods to business corridors across the County.

Just two months ago, I joined representatives of the University of Maryland College Park, the University of Maryland Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical System to announce the formation of the Institute for Health Computing (UM3 IHC). This new institute will bring together our County’s globally recognized life science community with the Universities’ internationally ranked bio-health and quantum computing programs to create the next generation of medicine and care.

In addition to these two very important projects, we will work with our State delegates and senators to secure financial support for significant school building upgrades, to keep the promise of the Blueprint for Maryland’s future, to combat climate change, to improve public safety and to care for all residents. You can look at a list of our legislative priorities by following this link.

Montgomery County has an outstanding delegation in the State Assembly made up of 35 senators and delegates. In fact, it is the largest delegation in the State., including a portion of District 9A that now includes part of our County. I would like to welcome Sen. Katie Fry Hester, as well as five new delegates: Del. Aaron Kaufman, Del. Bernice Meriku-North, Del. Joe Vogel, Del. Chao Wu and Del. Natalie Ziegler. I am excited to work with each of them to produce real results for Montgomery County.

Once again, our delegation members are well represented in leadership across the General Assembly. Del. Marc Korman has been selected as the new House Majority Leader and Del. Emily Shetty has been named chair of the House Democratic Caucus. They join Del. Kumar Barve, chair of the House Transportation and Environment Committee, as part of the House senior leadership team.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Nancy King and Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Will Smith will be joined in leadership by Sen. Brian Feldman, who will lead the newly created Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment. In addition, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins will serve as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. With other County legislators chairing several critical policy and budget subcommittees, our delegation is primed to deliver results for our County. I also look forward to continued partnerships with Senate Delegation Chair Ben Kramer and House Delegation Chair Julie Palakovich Carr.

Congratulations to all the new and returning legislative leaders, especially House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson. Their leadership has been critical to the State over the last three years. I value their continued partnership.

As always, my appreciation for all of you,


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