Montco experiences ‘unprecedented’ surge in COVID-19 cases, yet hospitalizations aren’t rising as quickly

At a Wednesday briefing, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Valerie Arkoosh said she’s ‘cautiously optimistic’ of a peak in two weeks.

A group of people stand around a podium.

File photo: Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

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Montgomery County says it’s seeing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases. More than 5,000 new positive cases were reported from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3, according to the county Department of Health.

Those numbers represent a stark difference from two weeks ago, when the county reported 942 COVID-19 cases from Dec. 18 to Dec. 20.

“We have the highest number of cases that we have seen to date during this pandemic,” Board of Commissioners Chair Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, who tested positive on Monday, said at a virtual briefing Wednesday morning.

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But while hospitals are full, hospitalization numbers are not rising as rapidly as the number of positive cases, according to the county Health Department.

Of 478 COVID patients in Montco hospitals, 78 are in the intensive care unit, and 34 are on  ventilators, said the county’s regional EMS medical director, Dr. Alvin Wang.

“Our hospitals remain busy with increased patient volumes across the board,” said Wang.  “Some of this is normal for this time of year, and as you can see, some of this volume is directly related to hospitalizations from COVID-19.”

Arkoosh said those numbers help her feel “cautiously optimistic.”

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“I would not suggest that we are in any way out of the woods,” said Arkoosh, “but it’s certainly encouraging that we haven’t seen a similar rapid rise in hospitalizations as we’ve seen in cases.”

Arkoosh acknowledged that hospital numbers usually lag behind positivity rates. But she added, “I am cautiously optimistic that we will see a peak sometime in the next two weeks, and then hopefully it will start to come down.”

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Policy Lab said Friday that the pivot of new infections to a milder coronavirus variant, omicron, may lead to a swifter collective recovery.

Arkoosh said that hospitals in Montgomery County are managing, but that some are putting off elective procedures.

But she added that hospitals are asking people not to use emergency rooms unless they are having a “true medical emergency,” and instead to have routine COVID-19 testing handled by primary care officials or county testing sites.

The county is not taking any further virus mitigation steps beyond its current safety measures. It is urging residents to limit gatherings to small numbers of fully vaccinated individuals, to mask indoors in public settings, and to get vaccinated and boosted.

County officials said they are expecting next week the arrival of two new oral antiviral treatments for COVID-19, Paxlovid (developed by Pfizer) and molnupiravir (developed by Merck).

Testing for the coronavirus has increased dramatically across Montgomery County, according to Christina Miller, administrator for the Office of Public Health.

During the month of December, the county administered over 18,000 PCR tests, more than double the number administered during the month of November.

“In-person testing resources throughout the county are strained, as they are across the country,” said Miller, “and at-home tests are equally difficult to secure right now.”

Beginning next week, Miller said, the county is planning to add more capacity for testing appointments, and increase at-home test accessibility for health care providers.

In January, Miller said, they plan on “more than 1,500 weekly appointments, or 6,000 appointments” through the county’s testing sites.

In the meantime, said Miller, in conjunction with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, individuals who are experiencing symptoms should isolate for five days.

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