Hospital staffing shortages and a wave of COVID-19 patients — almost all of them unvaccinated — threaten to overwhelm the state’s healthcare facilities in the coming weeks, Maryland leaders warned on Tuesday.
And they beseeched residents to get COVID-19 boosters, wear masks and avoid gathering in large groups over the holidays.
With Christmas just days away and the now-dominant omicron variant spreading rapidly, Marylanders continued to queue for tests at libraries and clinics, though many found that supplies were exhausted by the time they reached the head of the line.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who tested positive on Monday and is under quarantine at Government House, pledged $100 million to address staffing concerns and increase the test supply. He did not reimpose a mask mandate, despite pleas for him to do so.
Meanwhile, the state posted its largest single-day increase in cases — 6,216 — since the pandemic began. There were 1,392 COVID patients in Maryland hospitals as of Tuesday morning, a one-day increase of 34. And the 7-day positivity rate popped again — to 11.64%.
State data on COVID deaths has not been updated since a Dec. 4 cyberattack.
“In 20 years of practicing emergency medicine within the military and as a civilian, these are some of the most challenging times I have ever seen in health care,” said Dr. David Marcozzi, the COVID-19 incident commander for the University of Maryland Medical System.
“This week the University of Maryland Medical System will surpass the highest number of admitted COVID patients since the start of this pandemic, with many hospitals at or near capacity,” he added.
Marcozzi said “exceedingly long waits” in emergency departments and delays in surgery — for COVID and non-COVID patients alike — can be expected. “This isn’t just a COVID problem any more.”
Hogan recorded a video message from the governor’s mansion due to his positive test results. Sounding hoarse, the two-time cancer survivor said he’s “doing fine and only experiencing some cold-like symptoms.” He wore a blue track suit emblazoned with a Maryland Army National Guard patch as he spoke in front of a Christmas tree.
The governor said he was making $25 million available to address staffing needs at hospitals and another $25 million for nursing homes; $30 million will go to increase testing in Maryland schools.
The state will make half a million tests available through local health departments and at BWI Airport, and the Maryland Department of Health is expanding operations at testing facilities in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
Maryland National Guard personnel will staff testing sites, as they did during the vaccination surge earlier this year.
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) reimposed a mask mandate on Monday.
Marcozzi, whose recorded remarks were shown after the governor’s, said the increase in hospitalizations is being driven primarily by people who are not fully vaccinated. He also said Marylanders “have become too relaxed with our protective measures. From businesses to churches, we need to reinstate preventive measures — and we need to do so today.”
At a press conference in Baltimore County on Monday, Gail Cunningham, chief medical officer at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, said the staffing challenge and patient surge have combined to produce “a health crisis in Maryland.”
“I would recommend mandating masks again,” she told reporters.
A Hogan spokesman declined to comment.
Cunningham spoke at an event organized by Baltimore County Executive Johnny A. Olszewski Jr. (D), who announced Tuesday that he had tested positive. Like Hogan, he is twice-vaccinated and has had a booster.
“I’m asymptomatic and currently feel fine,” Olszewski said on Twitter. “This is a critical reminder of the challenges we all continue face amid the highly contagious Omicron variant.”
The governor said he expects the spike in cases and hospitalizations will peak in mid-late January, though that is when the state typically experiences an uptick in influenza cases. “We will continue to constantly monitor this surge and take additional actions as need.”
Local leaders across Maryland are taking their own steps to boost testing capabilities and to encourage people to get tested before gathering with loved ones.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) announced plans to distribute 100,000 free at-home rapid test kits.
Baltimore officials are using libraries to distribute tests, though lines were long and many people who showed up were not able to secure a test.
Prince George’s leaders defend shift to virtual learning
In the face of criticism from Hogan, Prince George’s Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) defended the decision to temporarily shift from in-person to virtual learning in the county’s schools.
Schools CEO Monica D. Goldson announced the shift last week after 994 students and 261 teachers tested positive, which “began to significantly impact learning and became disruptive to our school environment.”
“It was wise — given the numbers that we’ve seen — to make sure that we take immediate measures to contain the spread of the virus,” Alsobrooks said. “We know we’re in the middle of a surge.”
She said counties have been hampered by the cyberattack that hit Maryland Department of Health computers on Dec. 4. Nonetheless, residents can protect themselves by getting vaccinated and boosted, and limiting contact with others, she said.
While breakthrough cases can occur, Prince George’s Health Officer Dr. Ernest L. Carter said, “the illness is not nearly as severe when you get omicron and you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, as … if you hadn’t gotten vaccinated.”
The shift to virtual learning in Prince George’s took effect on Monday and will run until Jan. 18.
Speaking on Fox News on Sunday, Hogan called that move “a terrible mistake, and something we’re very opposed to.”
A potential candidate for president in 2024, the governor falsely accused the county of “shutting down an entire school system.”
Goldson said she made her decision in consultation with the state superintendent of schools. “(I) shared our issues and concerns here and received a response from him in support of the decision that I made.”
By Bruce DePuyt