Maryland officials concerned about omicron urge booster shots, precautions

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said on Wednesday that officials have taken additional steps to track down the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the state, following the recent confirmation of the strain’s presence in the U.S.

An emergency procurement order for more supplies to expand and track COVID-19 variants has been approved, Mr. Hogan announced, and rapid antigen tests to detect the virus will be made available at the international terminal at the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for the nearly 7,000 international passengers who arrive each week.

“If omicron does come to Maryland, we will find it and track it down,” the governor said. “While there are still a great deal of unknowns about the omicron variant, our state will not wait to launch our preparedness efforts, and Marylanders shouldn’t wait either.”

He said the best ways people can protect themselves and others is to get tested and to get vaccinated, noting the BWI airport has a new urgent care center that provides COVID-19 testing, vaccines and boosters to any travelers.

Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy health secretary, said it will take at least a couple more weeks to find out more details about the omicron variant and determine the impact it could have.

Maryland is starting to experience a seasonal uptick in coronavirus cases. State health data shows Maryland’s average test positivity rate has climbed to 5.13% for the last seven days as of Tuesday, up from a seven-day test positivity rate of 2.94% on Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich on Wednesday urged health officials to follow Prince George’s County’s lead and keep a mask mandate in place rather than flipping back and forth. 

Montgomery County reinstated its indoor mask mandate Nov. 20 after logging seven straight days of “substantial transmission.”  

The county is considered to be experiencing substantial transmission if it sees between 50 and 99.99 total new cases per 100,000 people or 8% to 9.99% of tests in the past seven days come up positive.

In November, the county council voted unanimously to reinstate a mask mandate for indoor public spaces if there are seven consecutive days of substantial COVID-19 spread. The face coverings mandate in indoor spaces would end when the county sees moderate spread of COVID-19 for seven consecutive days.

Due to the holiday season and omicron strain, Mr. Elrich encouraged everyone who is eligible to get a booster shot. He added the county is likely to reach 80% of its population fully vaccinated this week.

About 202,000 boosters have been administered in Montgomery County, but Earl Stoddard, the county’s acting assistant chief administrative officer, said he would like to see that number go up.

“My guess is there’s probably 500,000 or more residents who are eligible for boosters at this point so we’ve got several hundred thousand people that should come in and get boosted before the end-of-year holidays,” he said.

The county’s test positivity rate has been gradually increasing over the last month, climbing to 2.8% as of Tuesday from 1.5% Nov. 1.

Earlier this week, the Prince George’s County council approved the extension of its current COVID-19 restrictions, including its indoor mask mandate, until early 2022.

The council on Monday voted unanimously to extend the county’s emergency declaration related to the COVID-19 pandemic again. The indoor mask mandate requires everyone 2 and older to wear a mask in public indoor settings, no matter their vaccination status.

The resolution was set to expire Dec. 9 at 5 p.m., but has now been extended until Jan. 23. The county also has experienced an uptick in cases and saw a 3.2% test positivity rate from Nov. 21 to Nov. 27, putting it in the “red zone,” the latest health data shows.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday confirmed the first case of the omicron variant in a California resident who recently returned from South Africa. 

Maryland officials have not yet detected the strain in the state.

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