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COVID-19 in Maryland

As COVID Booms, Hogan Announces New Safety Measures, Schools Chief Defends Planned Return to Class

Cars lined up for a COVID-19 PCR testing site at the former Baltimore City Public Safety Training Facility, 3500 W. Northern Parkway, in Baltimore on Sunday. The testing was scheduled from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., but cars began arriving along W. Northern Parkway well before the site opened and a line snaked along the road for more than a mile for most of the afternoon. Photo by William F. Zorzi.

As the state’s COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates continue to skyrocket, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) implemented new orders aimed at state employees Monday, with plans to announce further emergency measures later this week.

“Today we are taking another series of actions to address the current surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, and we will continue to take every action necessary to help our hospitals and keep people safe,” Hogan said in a statement Monday morning.

Hogan announced Monday morning that the state will provide two hours of paid leave to incentivize government employees to get their COVID-19 booster shots. This policy will be applied retroactively to employees who have proof they’ve been boosted.

State agencies will also be allowed to implement hybrid in-person and telework policies. “Front-facing agency services” have been instructed to operate as usual, according to Monday’s news release.

Additionally, all state employees and visitors are now required to be masked while in buildings owned or leased by the state.

The state’s largest employee union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which reached a new contract with the Hogan administration on New Year’s Eve, said officials had earlier rejected policies on universal masking and screening during the collective bargaining process.

On Monday, the state reported 14,251 new COVID cases in the past 24 hours — and 26 additional deaths.

Almost 90,000 new COVID test results were reported Monday, after hours-long lines snaked around testing sites across the state over the weekend. Maryland’s current seven-day average positivity rate for reported COVID tests is 26.87%.

According to the Maryland Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, which had been knocked offline following a cyberattack waged against the agency last month, 2,746 hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients — nearly doubling the state’s previous peak seen in January 2021.

Several hospitals in the state have shifted to “crisis standards of care,” which give legal and ethical guidelines to health care providers when they have too many patients and not enough resources to care for them all, The Associated Press reported.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee and the Senate Education, Environment and Health Affairs Committee will hold a joint hearing on Jan. 13 to question department officials about the nature of the cyberattack.

Maryland Department of Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader was slated to provide an update to lawmakers on the state response to the surge in cases during a briefing of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup on Monday afternoon but requested that the meeting be postponed to Wednesday, citing “weather-related response activities.”

After a spokesperson for Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) alerted the press that the Senate meeting was canceled, the governor’s office announced that Hogan will hold a briefing to discuss COVID-19 emergency actions Tuesday morning.

Last week, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore City) issued a statement criticizing what she characterized as Hogan’s inaction in response to the pandemic’s surge following a Baltimore Sun report that a state-contracted company mishandled vaccine doses.

“Our overwhelmed hospitals have called on the state to declare a public health emergency. These calls have gone unanswered by the Department of Health,” Jones tweeted. “Now, we are learning they’ve mishandled the vaccination of over a thousand Marylanders and refused to notify them in a timely manner. Governor Hogan needs to treat this like the public health crisis it has once again become.”

Schools chief defends planned return

As students prepare to return to school after winter break, some school districts are reinforcing their commitment to in-person learning while some teachers and parents have been demanding a return to virtual learning in the midst of the rapidly spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.

In a press conference on Monday, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises emphasized the importance of keeping schools open, especially for the most vulnerable students for whom school is one of their only safe havens.

“The decision to return to in-person learning is grounded in one to two plus years of experience and consultation with medical professionals,” Santelises said.

The decision aligns with U.S. Department of Education guidance and State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of keeping schools open. Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s largest school system, also intends to return to classrooms after the holidays, though that has also been delayed by winter weather. In mid-December, Prince George’s County Public Schools made the decision to shift to virtual learning until after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Santelises on Monday announced additional safety measures, including to require all staff — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to participate in weekly tests for COVID-19 through the month of January. All high school students will be offered testing on Wednesday, one day before they return to school. And the school district will also offer more ways for families to submit COVID-19 testing consent forms, such as through email or other online portals, Santelises continued.

Elected state officials, including the senate president, showed their support for the decision on Monday, joining Santelises at the press conference.

“We have multiple layers of detection, prevention and treatment that exist to make our schools some of the safest places in our city — no other sectors in our society right now are shutting down,” Ferguson said.

Bruce DePuyt and Elizabeth Shwe contributed to this report.