As Hogan Presses Counties to Ramp Up Testing, Local Leaders Feel Abandoned

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), with Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) behind him, says local leaders were looking for more collaboration from the state during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) ended weekly conference calls with top local leaders on COVID-19 strategy in mid-May, a break-off of communication that “shocked” county officials, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said on Thursday.

Pittman refuted Hogan’s repeated claim that county executives wanted the ability to reopen their economies more slowly than the rest of the state. Instead, he said, local leaders wanted a collaborative approach, where businesses reopened and social interaction returned in “tiers,” based on varying local infection and hospitalization rates.

Pittman made his comments during an interview on Thursday, the day the state Department of Health added a new page to its coronavirus dashboard, “testing by county.” In an accompanying news release, Anne Arundel is shown to have tested less than 6% of its population, one of the lowest percentages in Maryland.

The Hogan administration vigorously rejected Pittman’s telling of events, releasing a detailed timeline to Maryland Matters.

In the news release on Thursday, Hogan encouraged counties to test more of their residents for COVID-19 — a message amplified by Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall and the state’s chief public health official, Fran Phillips, in a letter to county leaders.

“Widespread testing is critical to saving lives and safely reopening more and more of our economy, which is why state health officials are setting a goal of testing 10% of the population in all of our 24 jurisdictions,” Hogan said.

“The State of Maryland will continue to have an abundant supply of testing available at no out-of-pocket cost to anyone in our state who needs to be tested, and we are looking to our county leaders to do their part by expanding testing efforts at the local level.”

More than half of Maryland’s counties have tested between 7% and 10% of their population, according to the state numbers. Anne Arundel has tested 5.9%

Pittman said his county has worked hard to secure enough tests — and he said it has the best contact tracing operation in Maryland.

“We were trying to get the state to do testing early on and they weren’t able to deliver, so we went ahead and got started on our own,” he said. “But it’s great that he’s encouraging us all to do testing.”

Pittman said county leaders had weekly calls with Hogan up until May 12, but when local officials expressed frustration with repeatedly being caught off-guard by the governor’s reopening announcements, he stopped participating in the conversations.

“Please note we will be transitioning the county calls to staff-led and organized,” wrote Steve Schuh, a former Anne Arundel County executive who has been serving as Hogan’s liaison to the counties during the COVID-19 public health crisis, on May 20.

“The governor will not be participating on the call and is unlikely to participate in the foreseeable future. Cabinet-level officials and senior staff members will continue to be available.”

Pittman said the letter was “a shock to all of us.”

“We were having weekly meetings with the governor, with him on the phone, where we could speak directly to him until that moment. And then they canceled and he’s not made himself available to county leaders since,” Pittman said.

“And it’s been very frustrating because — at the beginning — we believed that there was going to be a statewide strategy, and that ended when he ended the communication with us and basically said that we could all each go our separate ways. And not only the counties but also the municipalities within the counties.”

Hogan’s communications director, Michael Ricci, said in a statement on Thursday that the governor increased his communication with local leaders in early May in response to a request from “the Big 8” county executives.

At the request of Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) in mid-May, Hogan moved up a call with local leaders to provide more advance notice about his next announcement, Ricci said.

“County Executive Pittman asked the governor to emphasize in his upcoming announcement that each county would have the authority to respond differently, and to continue to stress caution,” Ricci wrote. “[Montgomery] County Executive [Marc] Elrich stated that he appreciated the flexibility, citing confusion related to [Virginia] Gov. [Ralph] Northam and Northern Virginia.”

“Staff and Cabinet officials continue to be available to county leaders 24/7,” he added.

Ricci continued: “Regardless of whether county leaders want to claim credit for this community-based approach, it is clearly working. Since the beginning of Stage One, all of our key health metrics have continued to trend in a positive direction. County leaders have provided great leadership during this crisis, and now we are asking them to work with us to make sure that 10 percent of every jurisdiction is tested. Some counties are at or above that mark, some are within range, and some clearly have more work to do. We stand ready to assist in any way we can.”

None of the county leaders disagrees with state officials that testing must be increased and is key to the reopening of the state.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D)

“We plan to continue to innovatively and effectively expand testing while working collaboratively with our partners to reach this new State goal to test at least 10% of our population,” Ball said in a statement provided to Maryland Matters Thursday. Howard County has tested just under 7% of its population.

But several large counties — including Montgomery and Prince George’s — have lagged behind the rest of the state in reopening their economies and allowing social interaction because of stubbornly high infection rates and hospitals that were in danger of running out of bed space.

Pittman insisted the counties did not want to go their own way.

“That’s never what we asked for,” he said. “We always asked for a seat at the table, to be part of the conversation about the pace of recovery. We’ve talked to them about tiers for different parts of the state. But it became impossible for us to listen to a press announcement on a Wednesday for openings that would take place on a Friday and then have to make decisions and do executive orders — before the businesses opened on their own — and go make our own decisions about the pace of our reopening. From a planning perspective and a public health perspective, it made no sense.”

Pittman said local officials were also absent from the “recovery committees” that Hogan formed to advise him on reopening as the state’s COVID-19 metrics began to level off and decline.

“The roadmap to recovery committees were void of any local government participation, not even [the Maryland Association of Counties],” he said. “They brought some business leaders together and had some meetings but that was it.”

“Our health officers were frustrated as well at the way the decisions have been made,” he added.

While Anne Arundel trails the state in testing percentage, Pittman said the county is making strides with its contact tracing program. And he took a swipe at the state’s contract with an Illinois firm to handle its contact tracing effort.

“The really hard cases are the ones where you need to provide services as well, and you need to help people figure out how to quarantine and isolate,” Pittman said. “For instance where you have a household with a dozen people who don’t speak English, and you’re trying to get them to quarantine from each other. We have a lot of that. That can never be done through a bunch of people in Chicago at a phone bank.”

[email protected]