Cecil County Re-opens in Line with Hogan Orders; State Slow to Test Nursing Homes Here, Warwick new Virus “Hotspot”

May 18, 2020

Cecil County is re-opening business and social activities to the fullest extent allowed by Gov. Larry Hogan’s limited “Stage One” recovery plan as new hospitalizations for the COVID-19 virus show slight declines in the state. But a cluster of new cases in the Warwick area has emerged in recent days and county health officials concede that long promised special state testing of local nursing home patients and staff is lagging.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy announced, at a press conference on Friday (5/15/2020), that “Cecil County is ready to begin our reopening” and the county “will implement all of the facets stipulated“ in Hogan’s directive that took effect at 5 p.m. Friday. But he noted that “the county cannot remove restrictions that the Governor retains in place.” Hogan has lifted the “stay home” order and allowed limited re-opening of retail operations and hair or barber shops, under certain restrictions, as well as boating and golfing activities.

Under questioning by reporters, McCarthy said he had hoped the governor would allow restaurants to open table services at outdoor patios or seating areas with appropriate social distancing. But the governor insisted that takeout ordering only must continue at restaurants until a later stage in the re-opening process.

Cecil County joins Harford County and other less urban areas in fully implementing the governor’s program, while more urbanized areas that have had the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates have continued full “stay home” mandates. Hogan allowed local counties to retain the tougher standards if they chose to do so, despite saying the opposite several weeks ago when he said differing rules among the counties would only promote unnecessary travel and risk higher infection rates.

More than a month ago, Hogan also announced on 4/7/2020 an ambitious program to protect nursing home residents, who account for nearly half of the virus deaths in the state, by sending in National Guard teams to test staff and residents for the virus and to provide protective equipment and other supplies and assistance. On 4/11/2020, Cecil County summoned the National Guard team to the Calvert Manor nursing home in Rising Sun due to a significant outbreak of the virus there.

While all Calvert Manor residents and staff have now been tested, testing at other nursing homes in the county has not been completed. County Health Officer Lauren Levy said at the press conference that an Elkton nursing home had only been visited by the National Guard team for testing of staff and patients on Thursday (5/14/2020) and that results would take several days to proceed. She said there were two facilities in the county that were still awaiting the state “strike force” testing process, which also includes detailed evaluations of a facility’s operations and care protocols.

However, she said that the state has provided quantities of “PPE” supplies such as masks, gowns, face shields and gloves for the nursing homes and the county health department is in regular contact with the facilities to provide whatever protective gear they need.

According to the state database on nursing homes, which is updated weekly, Calvert Manor is the only nursing home in the county known to be affected, with 86 patients and 15 staffers testing positive for the virus. Seventeen residents have died.

As of Monday morning (5/18/2020), Cecil County health officials reported 330 confirmed cases of the virus and 19 fatalities. Over the weekend, the daily statewide virus report—which can lag several days behind local health agencies’ accounting—noted for the first time a new sector of Cecil County as a rising infection site: Warwick, in southern Cecil County near the Delaware line. As of Monday, there were 15 confirmed cases of the virus in Warwick.

A week ago, the county health department, the county’s Department of Emergency Services and ChristianaCare/Union Hospital staff jointly conducted a drive-through testing operation that collected samples from 320 people working in the agricultural industry in the area, Levy said. National Guard staff did not participate although some state supplies were provided, while the hospital provided test kits, Levy said.

(Sources said the testing focused on workers at the mushroom farming facility in Warwick. Testing had also been planned at a major egg-laying hen facility in the area, but a separate operation there was not held, sources said.)

Levy said that there was no additional “scheduled testing event” for agriculture workers in the area but “we are in discussions on the best way to proceed.”

The state sent National Guard and federal Centers for Disease Control staff to a multi-day special testing operation in the Salisbury area for poultry farm workers. Wicomico County now registers the highest number of confirmed virus cases on the Eastern Shore, with 837 cases and 21 deaths as of Monday. Cecil County has the second highest case numbers and fatalities on the Shore.

Meanwhile, County Executive McCarthy said the county budget so far seems ready to withstand the economic impact of the pandemic, but the full long-term impact is still unknown. McCarthy instituted a budget spending and employee hiring freeze in April as the state initiated its lockdown measures.

The state Board of Revenue Estimates convened last week to lower its “worst case scenario” estimates of state revenue losses for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Instead of as much as $2 billion in losses, the panel’s budget experts lowered their projections to about $900 million in lost revenues for the final quarter of the year. However, state revenues from income, sales, fuel and other taxes could be reduced by over $2 billion in the upcoming Fiscal 2021 budget year that begins on July 1.

The Board’s review found what its staff called a surprising ray of hope: payroll withholding taxes to the state actually rose slightly in April, instead of plummeting as had been expected. State analysis suggested that the state’s large numbers of federal workers, professionals who could continue to work from home and employers’ reluctance to lay off workers contributed to the slight uptick in payrolls. However, for the past several weeks state jobless numbers have skyrocketed along with claims for unemployment insurance benefits.

McCarthy said it was too soon to evaluate if those April payroll tax collection trends would apply here, since “there is a huge time delay because those taxes are paid to the state and they rebate the money to us” later in the year But he added that the jobs outlook in Cecil County was better than many other areas in the state.

“I can proudly say that Cecil County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state of Maryland as we speak,” McCarthy said. “We also have numerous jobs which are unfilled, so, many unemployed Cecil County residents can certainly look for places in Cecil County that are hiring right now.”

For further information on Gov. Hogan’s staged re-opening plan and the limits still in place, see the state information page here: https://governor.maryland.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/MD_Strong.pdf

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