Enhanced COVID testing

Dear resident,

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis I have devoted my energy to providing oversight on the critical public health measures that we must have in place in order to get the virus under control.

Bethesda Magazine Story on Council Health Order

You already know that the County Council has enacted requirements for shutdowns and reopenings, generally affirming plans developed collaboratively with the executive branch.

Occasionally we have had to use our regulatory power to accelerate action on crucial issues where the executive’s public health response has not moved fast enough.

Facial coverings for example — our County requirement for facial coverings (and funding to distribute them) was established because the Council backed my proposal in early April. We became one of the first jurisdictions in the country to embrace a requirement.

Testing is a great concern for Councilmembers. To strengthen our testing program, this week the Council passed a public health order to require the executive branch to build the capacity to test 30,000 residents per week (not counting private provider testing).

Councilmember Albornoz and I prepared the order, based on a written plan that we requested from the executive branch, because we have had serious concerns for months now about our testing program.

It is true that Montgomery County has reduced the daily COVID count of new cases from several hundred to about 75. This has happened largely because our residents conscientiously embraced social distancing, and our County government has not tried to push the limit.

That is a success that we can all be proud of. We are not COVID deniers here, and our sense of collective responsibility is working to reduce transmission.

The County government, however, should also be leading the nation on testing. Montgomery County is home to the NIH and FDA, we are a global hub for vaccine research, we have numerous private labs that can process diagnostic tests, and we have some of the best health care you’ll find anywhere in the world.

That’s why I have been pushing for expanded testing for months.

In May, the County Executive’s team indicated it was prepared to provide as many as 20,000 tests per week at County sites through partnerships with local labs. It didn’t happen, and we still haven’t gotten there yet due to a lack of logistical organization.

We have also heard from residents experiencing challenges resulting from not having adequate test sites, not having them in walking distance, not having online scheduling for tests, not having culturally competent outreach conducted with community partners, and more.

In fact — the soonest appointment available online for testing at any County facility right now is 7 days. If you need one sooner than that you may walk-up without an appointment according to HHS, or call your doctor for other options.

As a result the Council confirmed its intent to have accountability on testing by passing our public health regulation.

The health order will require the executive branch to open facilities for enough hours to provide 20,000 tests per week in September and 30,000 per week by October.

In response to our letter and resolution, the executive branch is now organizing an internal staff operation, to be supported by contractual services, of 250 personnel, to support the testing operation.

One challenge that helped bring this forward is that despite our ongoing discussion about racial equity, the County continues to have a disproportionate problem with infection in communities of color. Hispanic residents accounted for 73% of new cases in June (and 37% of total COVID-19 cases), even though they make up only 20% of the County’s population.

We need a more aggressive response, and we hope that with the new public health order, we will get one.

I will keep you posted.