Faced with a dominant COVID-19 strain, the delta variant, that is more contagious — and poses more of a potential health threat — than the original, state and local political leaders from around Maryland took steps on Thursday to stem the tide of infection.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced that, come September, employees who work in state-run congregate facilities will be required to show proof of vaccination. Those who refuse will be required to wear face coverings and provide regular negative coronavirus test results.
His vaccination policy came amid a flurry of new mask orders in jurisdictions covering nearly half the state’s population.
The state “protocol” will apply to workers at 48 facilities run by four agencies — the Departments of Health, Juvenile Services, Public Safety and Correctional Services, and Veterans Affairs.
State employees in these facilities will need to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by September 1.
Anyone attempting to provide false proof of vaccination will be subject to disciplinary action, the governor said.
Hogan and top health officials used the occasion to issue some of their bluntest warnings to date to those who fail to take proven precautions.
“If you don’t get a vaccine and you don’t wear a mask, you’re going to get COVID-19,” said Hogan, speaking at a State House news conference.
His message was reinforced by Dr. Ted Delbridge, head of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS).
“The unfortunate reality is: If you are not vaccinated, it’s not a matter of if you get COVID-19, it’s only a matter of when,” Delbridge said. “Despite the very best medical care, people will continue to die.”
The MIEMSS chief, who has practiced emergency medicine for nearly 30 years, urged Marylanders who are not vaccinated to “play it safe, wear a mask.”
The same recommendation, he said, applies to people who find themselves among those whose vaccination status is unknown.
AFSCME Council 3, which represents the majority of union workers at the four agencies, said in a statement that it welcomes “proactive steps for health and safety at our worksites,” but it called for a “more holistic approach.”
The statement noted that employees covered by the vaccine order have been denied pandemic-related increases in pay.
“The Hogan Administration needs to ensure that all employees who are working where enhanced safety measures are mandated receive the Hazard/Response pay that they deserve,” AFSCME official Stuart Katzenberg said.
“Thousands of State employees who put themselves at risk daily, including those in the congregant care facilities, continue to be denied enhanced compensation despite the clear and present danger.”
Hogan defended his approach. He said nursing home workers “are at a very low vaccination rate compared to the state. That’s a big concern.”
He also urged operators of private nursing homes to institute similar vaccination requirements, lest state health officials take further action.
Several jurisdictions reimpose indoor mask orders
The governor stopped short of reinstating a statewide mask order.
“These are the actions that we feel are appropriate today, given the facts and the data where it stands,” he said. “We watch it every single day and we’ll take whatever additional actions we believe are necessary when we believe they’re necessary.”
But several large jurisdictions did impose mask mandates on Thursday. They cited new evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic are capable of transmitting the virus to others at alarming rates.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) announced that masks will be required in indoor public areas effective at 9 a.m. on Monday. The order applies to everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, who issued the order, said the decision to require masks was driven by a 374% increase in infections over the last four weeks, as well as a spike in Baltimore’s positive test rate during that time.
Masks “will help to limit further increase in cases,” she said.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) announced that masks will be required in all indoor public venues effective on Sunday at 5 p.m.
The requirement will apply to everyone over the age of 5, regardless of vaccination status.
“After consulting with health officials who are monitoring our COVID-19 metrics daily, we have been advised that we are now at a point where we must reinstitute an indoor public mask mandate to keep Prince Georgians safe,” Alsobrooks said in a statement.
“The spread of the new Delta variant shows that we can only get out of this pandemic by getting more people vaccinated. If you have not been vaccinated, please do so as soon as possible, not only to protect you and your loved ones, but also to prevent us from sliding back further in our recovery.”
Alsobrooks is in the process of drafting a requirement for employees who work in a county government office to get vaccinated or provide regular proof that they are COVID-negative.
The Montgomery County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, voted Thursday to impose an indoor mask mandate effect on Saturday.
That order will remain in effect as long as the county is a “substantial” transmission area. As defined by the CDC that designation kicks in after seven consecutive days of from 50 to 100 new cases for every 100,000 residents or a positive test rate from 8% to 10%.
An update County Executive Marc B. Elrich’s office sent to county residents Thursday night stated that recent CDC statistics showed Montgomery’s transmission rate averaged 57.6 per 100,000 and its positive test rate averaged 2.6%.
“While Montgomery County continues to lead the nation on vaccination rates, we have a segment of our population who are not yet eligible for the protection that the vaccine provides and others who are not vaccinated,” said Council President Tom Hucker (D).
“With unvaccinated COVID-19 victims accounting for 99 percent of recent deaths, I urge everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect yourself, your loved ones and our community.”
The Montgomery mask mandate provides an exemption for people who are eating or drinking, those receiving dental care, people engaged in public speaking and live performances, and those who are swimming and doing other forms of physical activity.
The Council ordered Elrich (D) to craft a plan to require all employees who work at a county facility to be vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test each week.
By Bruce DePuyt