Maryland’s New COVID-19 Focus? Outbreaks at Nursing Homes, Poultry Plants

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Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at a State House news conference in April. Executive Office of the Governor photo

Patients at Maryland nursing homes account for almost half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths since March, and about a fifth of the state’s more than 20,000 active cases ― and those numbers are likely to increase with an executive order mandating universal testing.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) issued the executive order on Wednesday, which will require universal testing of all staff and residents at nursing homes throughout the state.

As of Wednesday morning, the state reported 471 deaths from the novel coronavirus connected to nursing homes, as well as 4,369 confirmed cases of the virus.

Statewide, there were at least 20,849 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning, and 985 Marylanders have died from the virus since mid-March.

Hogan said the state will begin deploying a portion of the testing kits recently bought from South Korea to hotspots throughout the state, including nursing homes and the Eastern Shore, which is home to one of the country’s fastest-growing COVID-19 infection rates because of outbreaks among poultry workers at plants in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

As of Wednesday, there were 262 confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with poultry workers in Maryland, which is one reason the infection rate in Wicomico County is now the fifth-highest in the state.

On Wednesday, Hogan and 17 other governors from states with meat and poultry processing plants had a call with the White House, to discuss outbreaks and protection of the nation’s food supply.

“These outbreaks are not only a serious public health concern, they’re also a potential threat to Maryland’s leading agricultural industry and to our nation’s essential food supply chain,” Hogan said.

The state is opening a new drive-through testing site this week at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury to test workers at the Perdue plant in Salisbury and the Amick processing plant in Hurlock.

The state has sent epidemiologists to the shore to help with testing and contact tracing, and a Maryland Incident Management Team is coordinating response efforts with a team from the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The state is also creating teams to respond to COVID-19 cases at nursing homes.

With the start of universal testing, any nursing home workers who test positive will be sent immediately to isolation. Nursing home residents will be evaluated for symptoms of the virus daily.

Each nursing home in the state will be required to create a staffing plan and the state has coordinated more than 260 nurses and aides to be part of “bridge teams” that would go into understaffed nursing homes to continue care in the event of an outbreak.

At a briefing of the Joint COVID-19 Response Legislative Workgroup on Wednesday morning, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) expressed concern about the substantial number of confirmed cases being reported in nursing homes.

“This is rapidly evolving,” he said. “I hope that we are learning the right lessons with nursing homes because it’s probably the tip of the iceberg of … isolated communities that are in close proximity that when things spark, it can get out of control really quickly.”

Testing at nursing homes will be prioritized based on an imminent outbreak or a current rising threat, Hogan said.

State officials did not immediately know how many tests will be required for the Eastern Shore and nursing home hot spots.

Hogan said the state will maintain access to the testing kits from South Korea, which can process up to 500,000 tests. Other areas testing where kits will likely be deployed include Prince George’s County, which is home to the highest number of confirmed cases in Maryland (at least 5,738), and for increased testing of health care workers throughout the state.

Hogan said targeting and isolating outbreaks could help Maryland move further into a phase of economic recovery.

“We are no longer just playing defense — we are going on offense against this virus, attacking from every angle with everything we’ve got,” he said.

Hogan said he plans another public briefing on reopening plans next week.

Hannah Gaskill contributed to this report.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.