COVID-19: Schools to Stay Closed to May 15; Cecil County Exec Proposes Emergency Medical Sites, Financed by Budget Cuts

April 17, 2020

Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) will remain closed through 5/14/2020, according to a new state order. And Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy is proposing legislation for up to $450,000 in emergency medical services—financed by budget cuts and cost savings– to treat COVID-19 patients if there is a surge in the virus, which has already claimed two lives locally with 132 positive tests so far in the county.

The Cecil County emergency health initiative would be financed by budget cuts and cost savings, and would not increase overall county spending or taxpayer costs, according to budget documents The proposal would greatly expand services, if needed for critically ill and recovering virus patients, at a time when confirmed cases have been rising significantly on a daily basis..

Speaking at an Annapolis press conference with Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday (4/17/2020) afternoon, Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, announced that schools throughout the state would remain closed through May 15, extending previous orders that had shut down public schools across the state through April 24 due to the COVID-19 virus. But she stopped short of closing schools for the rest of the academic year, which extends through mid-June in most counties in the state.

“This is one of those decisions we need to make incrementally,” Salmon said of Friday’s decision.

She said her department was focused on helping school systems obtain take-home portable tablets for online learning programs and added that a federal COVID-19 aid package was expected to provide the state with $207 million for online learning programs.

The superintendent also said she’s working with local school systems to recognize high school seniors without traditional large graduation ceremonies that would violate state “stay home” orders. And she also mentioned the possibility of the state requiring “summer learning” programs in local schools, but did not elaborate on what format such programs might take.

CCPS Superintendent Jeff Lawson, in a note to students and parents this week, advised that local schools were already considering graduation ceremonies alternatives, such as virtual or online only events.

Responding to the new state order to keep schools closed at least until the end of May, Dr. Lawson said, “We anticipated that the closing would be extended in some capacity, but we were uncertain of the extent until the Governor’s press conference today. We have been preparing our work for students in two-week cycles, the next of which will be available this evening, so we will continue to support our students as we have done the past five weeks.

“In terms of potential ‘summer learning’ as Dr. Salmon mentioned today, if this is something that comes to fruition, it will most likely be additional learning opportunities for students as opposed to new instruction; however, much of this planning depends on what the remainder of the year will look like.”

Meanwhile, Hogan acknowledged that the state has had its “deadliest week to date” from the virus. But he said that the number of state residents who had recovered from the virus rose by 22% this week. “We are beginning to see some hopeful and encouraging signs,” Hogan said.

But the actual state Health Department daily report issued Friday morning offered little comfort in the raw numbers, as the spiral of confirmed cases and deaths continued to rise and the data showed that African-Americans, especially in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, continue to die and be infected by the virus in vastly disproportionate numbers compared to their share of the state population.

The state report counted 11,572 confirmed cases of the virus in the state—an increase of 788 cases within 24 hours—and 425 deaths—an increase of 33 fatalities in 24 hours. In addition to the confirmed deaths, the state report also listed another 69 “probable deaths” of people who likely died of the virus but their status was not officially confirmed by tests.

In Cecil County, the local health department reported that, as of Friday morning at 11:15 a.m., there were 132 confirmed cases of the virus, with 2 previously reported fatalities. County health officials told CECIL TIMES in recent days that most of the local patients have recovered, or are still recovering, at home, without hospitalization.

But the local health agency refused to disclose the actual number of hospitalizations for local virus patients, “due to the low number and concerns for patient privacy,” according to Daniel Coulter, Director of Health Planning and spokesman for the local Health Department. However, the local health agency– which is officially a state government agency but is partially funded by the county government– is required to report total local hospitalization numbers to the state Health Department.

Meanwhile, County Executive Alan McCarthy sent a legislative proposal to the County Council on Friday—which is set to be introduced to the Council next week—proposing re-allocation of $450,000 in existing funds from county agencies and programs to a new initiative directed at boosting emergency services and care to COVID-19 patients.

The initiative provides for a possible emergency field hospital to treat COVID patients in active infectious stages of the disease, along with a limited post-hospitalization, recovery in isolation option that could be especially beneficial to homeless patients who do not have a shelter at home option for recovery.

Budget documents submitted to the County Council state that the costs of the program would be financed by cost savings in the current budget due to virus-related cost reductions, including travel and training expenses. But most of the cost savings stem from the lack of snow removal costs ($250,000), and gasoline cost savings ($27,000) in the Department of Public Works.

Asked about his legislative proposal to the Council, as documented in materials submitted in the agenda posted on the Council website on Friday, McCarthy told CECIL TIMES that he had been working with Union Hospital and state health officials to plan ahead for a possible pandemic caseload that could overwhelm existing health services.

He said his plan called for a new site that could be established in Elkton, separate from the hospital, to treat possible virus-infected patients and that would be staffed by medical personnel provided by Union and also National Guard medical professionals, under the ‘state of emergency’ proclamations by the Governor that has activated Guard units to respond to the virus pandemic.

McCarthy declined to identify the location of the proposed auxiliary site but did say that the location would be donated at no cost to the county, other than the cost of utilities. Supplies to treat patients would be a separate cost, covered by the budget cuts, and medical professionals supervised by Union Hospital would staff the facility, with those costs covered by the county initiative.

Union is licensed by the state as a 125-bed acute care hospital, and documents previously obtained by CECIL TIMES indicate it has eight Intensive Care Unit beds. Union, now owned by the Delaware-based ChristianaCare operation, has recently refused to confirm the number of ICU beds or ventilators in Elkton, but sources have told CECIL TIMES that there are 10 ventilators, which are critical to care of COVID-19 patients in advanced stages of the disease.

McCarthy also said that his emergency plan would provide a limited post-crisis care option for patients, especially homeless people, who need to be isolated for a brief period but no longer need in-patient hospitalization. He said the county has identified a facility to provide such services at a reasonable per-diem fee on an as-needed basis.

“I hope we never need to put these emergency provisions into place,” McCarthy said. “But we have to plan for the worst, while hoping for the best.”

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