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Hogan Outline States Response on Unemployment, Nursing Homes, Medical Equipment — and Easter Bunny

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) takes off his mask as he prepared to speak at a State House news conference in April. Screen grab from a pooled video feed.

Maryland is dramatically ramping up its ability to process unemployment insurance claims, drawing employees from across state government, upgrading its computers and expanding hours to meet an unprecedented surge in applications, state officials said Friday.

And Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) declared that he has accepted a Board of Elections recommendation to hold the June 2 primary mostly by mail, with only limited opportunities for voters to cast ballots in person.

With more than 108,000 Marylanders filing for unemployment benefits last week — the third straight week of record claims — newly jobless workers are “facing longer-than-usual wait times on our phone lines,” Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson told reporters at a State House news conference.

To meet the crush of applications, she said, her agency is adding servers to “increase the speed and capacity of our online application,” workers are being imported from other government agencies, and contractors are being hired.

The Department of Labor is also expanding the hours for its call-in application center, which starting next week will be open from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. Saturday hours are being added beginning on April 18.

Robinson said more than 95% of the first-time unemployment claims that have been filed since early March have been processed online “successfully and without issue.” Most people are receiving their first payment within 21 days, she added.

Initial benefit payments are provided on a debit card and “covers all weekly benefits, back to a claimant’s date of eligibility,” Robinson said. Since March 9, the state has made 215,000 payments, totaling more than $76 million in benefits.

Her department is updating its computer systems and training in order to include new federal benefits by the end of next week, she said. “I can assure you we are all-hands-on-deck to provide Marylanders with the financial support that they need.”

Nursing home ‘strike teams’

Hogan said the “strike teams” that Maryland began to deploy to nursing homes and juvenile facilities facing COVID-19 outbreaks on Wednesday are being expanded to support assisted living facilities.

The teams, made up of medical personnel, local health department workers and the state National Guard members, can provide testing, “direct-care delivery” and other support, said Fran Phillips, deputy Health secretary for Public Health Services.

The units can “go on-site, to triage residents, to stabilize them, perhaps to begin some medical procedures or provide care that would normally not be in the nursing home,” she told reporters.

The state has also launched a new program for people who have recovered from COVID-19-related illnesses, Hogan announced. Called COVID Connect, the voluntary program offers former patients the opportunity to participate in research being funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and to offer encouragement to those currently undergoing treatment.

Phillips said there will soon be more than 400 people who have been released from isolation.

“They have tremendous stories to tell,” she said. “They are so grateful for the care that they got. … But what has been so striking is their interest in giving back.”

Hogan said the shortage of personal protective gear remains “the number one problem we have today.”

Working with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), Maryland has been able to acquire equipment from Battelle, a Columbus, Ohio-based non-profit, that will allow used masks to be sterilized for re-use, Hogan said. The Maryland Department of Transportation and FEMA are building a decontamination site at Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport.

“This unique site will give us the ability to clean and sterilize up to 80,000 N-95 respirator masks per day,” the governor said.

In accepting the Board of Elections request to move forward with the June 2 primary, Hogan urged Marylanders to cast their ballots by mail.

A relatively small number of in-person voting sites will be set up by counties for people who lack a fixed address or have special needs, Hogan said.

“We are joining the [BOE] in strongly urging every Marylander who can vote by mail to cast their ballot by mail,” he said. “Free and fair elections are the very foundation of American democracy and our ultimate goal must be to do everything possible to make sure that the voice of every Marylander is heard in a safe and secure manner.”

Hogan made no mention of the voting fraud concerns that some officials around the country — mostly Republicans — have expressed about mail-in elections.

Maryland’s presidential primary — which includes many local races — was originally set to take place on April 28. The state will still see a special election that day, an all-mail-in contest to replace the late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D).

Easter Bunny is “an essential worker”

Speaking on Good Friday, two days before Easter, Hogan noted that social distancing mandates will significantly impact cherished religious observances taking place this weekend.

Addressing Maryland’s children, he proclaimed that the Easter Bunny is “an essential worker. … He therefore will be able to proceed with his hopping across the state, delivering Easter baskets.”

Speaking slowly, his voice cracking with emotion, Hogan said “there have been other times in our history that events and conflicts have prevented us from celebrating holidays in the manner the way they’re accustomed to.”

This weekend will be one of those times, he acknowledged.

“But that in no way should diminish the promise of Easter, which celebrates a resurrection after a period of suffering and sacrifice,” he added. “Easter really is a day of hope, which is something that all of us could desperately use right now.”

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Hogan Outline States Response on Unemployment, Nursing Homes, Medical Equipment — and Easter Bunny