With coronavirus-related hospitalizations on the rise in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday paused the state’s recovery plan and expanded the requirements on when residents must wear a mask to slow the spread of the disease.
Effective Friday, Marylanders will be required to wear masks inside all businesses and public buildings, and anytime they are outdoors and social distancing is not possible, Hogan said.
The governor touted the state’s testing capabilities and declining rate of positive test results. But he said the state was at “a fork in the road” with the increase in hospitalizations.
The number of patients was at 386 on July 13 but has since increased to 571 as of Wednesday morning. Over the past two weeks, the number of hospitalizations has increased 27 percent, the governor said.
As an added precaution, the Maryland Department of Health issued an advisory against personal or business travel to states with a rate of positive tests above 10 percent, a list that includes Florida, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, Nebraska and Idaho, Hogan said.
Hogan declined to impose further restrictions on businesses or force them to shut down again, saying states that reopened too soon, only to roll back limits, saw severe effects on their economies.
“We’ve come too far together to lose the progress that we’ve made on the road to health and economic recovery here in Maryland,” he said.
As testing has increased, the number of positive cases has gone up, something health officials expected, he said. Over the last 34 days, the state has reported a seven-day rate of positive tests below the 5 percent guideline recommended by the World Heath Organization.
The state has tested more than 1.1 million residents, or roughly 19 percent of the population, and 22 of 24 jurisdictions have reached a goal health officials set of testing 10 percent of their populations, he said.
Only Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County have positive test rates above 5 percent, he said.
He did note that some of the commercial labs processing the tests have a backlog, causing some results to be delayed by 10 days to two weeks.
“This can render the results virtually worthless in terms of contact tracing and mitigation tactics,” he said.
The White House agreed yesterday to work with commercial labs for faster turn-around times and to distribute more tests that produce rapid results, Hogan said.
Many of the state’s new COVID-19 cases have come from young people–about 56 percent, Hogan said. At the start of the pandemic, it was older people who were hit hardest by COVID-19 and getting seriously ill.
But now, the rate of positive tests for people age 35 and older stands at 3.8 percent, Hogan said.
For Marylanders age 35 and younger, the rate is 6.72 percent, he said.
The governor said this may explain why hospitalizations are going up, even as the number of patients in intensive care units had remained relatively steady.
“Fortunately they’re not as sick,” he said. “They’re sick enough to go in the hospital, but they’re not suffering the same severe symptoms and complications as those older, more vulnerable patients that we were seeing in the spring, and who were going into [intensive care] and going on ventilators, where we were experiencing more deaths.”
Using contact tracing, health officials have learned that 44 percent of the people who recently tested positive said they attended a family gathering. The next highest activities were house parties (23 percent) and outdoor events (21 percent).
Data also showed that 54 percent of people who recently tested positive were working at an office. Forty-six percent said they ate at a restaurant, with an equal split among people who said they dined outdoors or had table service inside. Nearly 40 percent said they were shopping at retail stores.
The governor said Marylanders might be lulled into a false sense of security when spending time with family and friends in a familiar setting. He said he’s been guilty of it, noting that he’s mostly been cautious about wearing a mask and only going to the office or home. But he recently broke down and had his daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren over for dinner and a movie without wearing masks.
“I think it’s very easy to feel comfortable, thinking that just because you haven’t gone out to what we thought of as a high-risk activity that you’re perfectly safe,” he said.
People can just as easily get coronavirus by going to work in an office, attending a backyard barbecue or being with family, he said.
“Each of us has to be cautious and vigilant,” he said. “And we can’t afford to let our guard down.”
Hogan also announced that Maryland Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips is retiring and will be replaced by Dr. Jinlene Chan, who currently serves as the state’s assistant health secretary and chief medical officer.
Over the past five months, Chan has led the Maryland Department of Health’s coronavirus testing task force. Hogan said Chan’s team has increased Maryland’s testing capabilities from about 50 tests per day at the beginning of the pandemic to about 25,000 tests per day now.
The governor commended Phillips for her public health service in Maryland, particularly for her contributions to the state’s response to COVID-19.
“Since before the crisis became a crisis, Fran has been our field general and literally working around the clock day and night, seven days a week, to marshal an unprecedented public health response to this global pandemic, helping us to save lives, flatten the curve and keep Marylanders safe,” Hogan said.
“She’s been a trusted adviser to me, a guiding force to our entire team, and a steady and calming presence to Marylanders who are looking for answers and reassurance,” he added.
Phillips has often accompanied Hogan during press conferences about the coronavirus pandemic and provided information about the state’s response, emphasizing precautions that people can take to reduce the virus’ spread.
Hogan said he convinced Phillips to come out of retirement in 2018 and serve in the state health department for one year–which turned into nearly two years.
“To tell you the truth, it seems like we’ve gotten an extra five years out of her just in the past five months of this pandemic,” the governor said.
Phillips said she was proud of Maryland’s response to COVID-19 and praised Marylanders for helping others and making sacrifices to slow the spread of the disease.
“What Marylanders have accomplished together over the past five months has been truly phenomenal,” she said. “Marylanders have shown great conviction to help out and they continue to do so today.”
She stressed the importance of continuing to abide by health recommendations.
“We have made great progress but we have quite a way to go,” she said. “So Marylanders, I’m talking to you. We need to stick together. We need to honor each other by wearing masks, by keeping our distance, by choosing to curtail in-person activities and by making smart decisions. We can put ourselves in control of this virus. What we choose to do today will save lives and will keep Maryland strong.”
Phillips also lauded her successor, saying that “no one in the department has been more present or worked harder with good humor than Dr. Jinlene Chan.”
Chan, who worked with Phillips at both the Maryland Department of Health and Anne Arundel County’s health department, said she is looking forward to continuing the work that Phillips has done.
Chan, too, urged people to continue wearing face masks in public, practicing social distancing by maintaining six feet or more from others, avoiding large gatherings, and washing one’s hands.
These “individual, small inconveniences,” she said, are a “small trade-off to protect each other and to protect our families and neighbors.”
“These are simple messages, simple activities that can be done and practiced by everyone,” Chan said. “Ultimately, the life that you save and the life that you protect may not just be your own, but it could be your neighbor, your friend, your postal worker, your Starbucks barista.”
This story has been updated.