COVID-19 Cases, Deaths Rise as Gov. Hogan Hopes to Re-Open State; Tests Lag on Shore—Hogan to Shore: “Drop Dead???”

April 28, 2020



Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has a plan to re-open the state’s economy in a safe, staged fashion while coping with the COVID-19 pandemic but the numbers—rising infections, deaths and miniscule testing rates in the state—are getting in the way. And while most of the state’s virus testing, hospital expansion and emergency steps have focused on the Baltimore area and Washington suburbs, there is a growing threat on the Eastern Shore that has not been addressed.

Unless the state steps up its attention to the rising virus problems on the Eastern Shore, we will be left to wonder if that famous New York Post headline of many years ago might be revived and modified to assert: “Hogan to Shore: Drop Dead.”

On Tuesday (4/28/2020), the Cecil County Health Department reported, as it had a day earlier, that the local death toll from the virus stood at 8 people and provided an updated count of 165 residents testing positive for the virus. The state report issued Tuesday still did not update the fatalities for Cecil County and listed the 6 deaths from an earlier report. However, the 8 fatalities reported locally made Cecil County the county with the highest number of reported deaths on the Eastern Shore.

At the same time, there is a huge surge of cases in Wicomico County on the Shore, where state figures showed 340 confirmed cases of the virus and 5 deaths. Many of the cases appear to be related to reports of affected residents who work in the poultry industry and processing plants in the area.

Last Friday, Hogan announced a three-stage “roadmap to recovery” to gradually re-open businesses and social interactions by residents if certain health benchmarks—such as declining numbers of deaths and hospitalizations—were met. And he said he wanted the first stages to begin the first week in May, but admitted under reporters’ questioning that such a timetable was “hopeful” if not actually achievable. In the days since his declaration, the rising numbers in daily state and local health department reports make his hopeful wishes an impossible dream.

On Tuesday (4/28/2020), the state Health Department reported 20,113 confirmed cases of the virus, an increase of 626 cases within 24 hours. Confirmed deaths from the virus totaled 929 (an increase of 71 in 24 hours) plus another “probable” 87 deaths attributable to the virus but not fully confirmed by testing. Current hospitalizations rose by 15 cases, to 1,528—including 977 “acute” care beds and 551 Intensive Care Unit patients. (A total of 4,268 people have been hospitalized throughout the virus crisis in the state.)

Those numbers put the state far away from national and state guidelines for re-opening business and social interactions providing for 14 days of declining infections and hospitalizations.

And the latest combined total testing numbers—20,113 positive tests, plus 87,672 negative tests, for a total of 107,785 people in the state who have been tested– is a miniscule proportion of the state’s more than 6 million residents.

Hogan, always an astute politician with an ability to straddle partisan divides, took early steps to plan ahead for the looming health crisis, declaring a state of emergency on March 5, and taking escalating measures to limit exposures to the disease through “social distancing,” school closures, shutting down all but “essential” business activities and eventually issuing a “stay home” order throughout the state. His greatest strength was the readily available medical expertise from Baltimore’s world-renowned Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, as well as the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), that led to an early focus on building up hospital capacity and medical equipment to cope with an anticipated crush of sick patients.

Hogan achieved his goal to expand hospital beds in the state by over 6,000 new beds—including a field hospital at the Baltimore Convention Center set up by National Guard staff and supervised by Johns Hopkins and UMMS doctors and the re-opening of a closed hospital in Prince George’s County that will only treat COVID-19 patients.

A CECIL TIMES review of state health agency records found that one small hospital on the Eastern Shore—Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, MD, in Worcester County–was granted an emergency approval for expansion to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospital, which is normally licensed for 62 beds, received state authorization to add 16 beds at an adjacent nursing home to shift low-risk patients from the hospital to that facility. In addition, the hospital sought approval to increase its allotment of in-hospital beds by 27. The emergency approval was specified to last only until a month after the current pandemic state of emergency ends.

[UPDATE: In April, Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, in Wicomico County, received approval from the Maryland Health Care commission to convert office space into a 48-bed special ICU for virus patients and to re-purpose an existing 8 bed pediatric unit into an isolation area. The $3.8 million project is scheduled for completion in early May.]

But those small increased allotments are barely a drop in the bucket of Hogan’s statewide hospital “surge” plan totaling over 6,000 new hospital beds to address the crisis.

Testing to find people actually infected with the virus was always the weakest link in the state’s response but Hogan scored a substantive, as well as public relations, coup last week by obtaining 500,000 testing kits from South Korea, with the assistance of his Korea-born wife, Yumi.

However, in response to questions from CECIL TIMES, a state Health Department official acknowledged that the South Korea test kits do nothing to expand local testing options but instead are only usable by laboratories after limited local testing facilities actually collect nasal swabs from patients.

“The testing kits obtained from South Korea are the type used to process test specimens in a laboratory once those specimens have been collected in the field. As testing expands and the ability to collect test specimens on the Eastern Shore accelerates, the additional processing capacity allows us to process specimens collected anywhere in the state within approximately two to five days,” according to Charles Gischlar, deputy director of the state Department of Health’s Office of Communications.

In Cecil County, the local health department’s special virus hotline advises callers to have their primary care doctor contact ChristianaCare/Union Hospital in Elkton to fax a prescription for a test, which would then be conducted at the Elkton Hospital or a satellite “urgent care” center in Perryville. However, sources tell Cecil Times that the Elkton hospital can handle just 20 or so tests a day and it takes several days thereafter to obtain results.

The West Cecil Health Center in Conowingo—which is a federally-designated community health facility for a “medically underserved area” –recently received a special federal grant of nearly $800,000 under the new “CARES” act to provide virus care for low-income people or others without access to private medical services. Center officials did not immediately respond to a request for information about its testing services to local residents.

Meanwhile, Hogan made a public relations event of his latest expansion of virus testing facilities—as usual, all on the Western Shore—on Monday by announcing that two new drive-through COVID-19 testing facilities would be opened at former Vehicle Emissions (VEIP) car test sites. One of the new sites will be located in Calvert County (Prince Frederick) despite the fact that Calvert County has a lower rate of infections from the virus than Cecil County—where the state has refused to open the VEIP auto testing site on Route 40 for COVID-19 drive through testing for Eastern Shore residents.

As of Tuesday, the state Health Department report listed Calvert County as having 139 confirmed cases of the virus, while Cecil County reported 165 confirmed cases. There are also other state testing sites already available in the Southern Maryland area while there are no state testing sites on the Eastern Shore.

Asked by CECIL TIMES why Cecil County had not been selected for a VEIP site for virus testing despite its rising infection and fatality rates, Gischlar of the state Health Department said, “The state recognizes the need for additional testing options on the Eastern Shore and is continuing to review potential site locations. There are already testing sites operated by local health departments in partnership with local health care partners on the Shore. We hope to have new testing sites available on the Shore in the coming weeks.”

Meanwhile, late Tuesday afternoon the Wicomico County Health Department announced that it would hold three “targeted” virus testing clinics, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, for residents of the “lower Eastern Shore, including workers in poultry processing plants and their families.”

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