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State, health systems ramp up preparations following virus cases

Yeshiva University players, foreground, warm up in a mostly empty Goldfarb Gymnasium at Johns Hopkins University before playing against Worcester Polytechnic Institute in a first-round game at the men's Division III NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Baltimore, The university held the tournament without spectators after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Maryland. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

Yeshiva University players, foreground, warm up in a mostly empty Goldfarb Gymnasium at Johns Hopkins University before playing against Worcester Polytechnic Institute in a first-round game at the men’s Division III NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Baltimore, The university held the tournament without spectators after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Maryland. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

With five Marylanders now having tested positive for COVID-19, preparations for the disease by hospitals, universities, businesses and other groups have taken on a new urgency.

Some groups have announced event cancellations. Universities ramped up their planning. And local officials tried to answer questions about the confirmed cases without giving away the privacy of the individuals who had contracted the disease.

“For over a month we have been at sprint pace trying to prepare our facility for what may be coming our way,” said Dr. David Marcozzi, COVID-19 Incident Response Commander for the University of Maryland Medical System. “The inflection point of having a case in Maryland was something we had been anticipating. It heightened our senses, but we had been anticipating that for over a month now.”

Hospitals continue preparations

News of confirmed cases in Maryland did not change how hospitals were preparing for the coronavirus, but did increase the urgency of their message that people, businesses and health systems continue their own preparations.

Things like hand washing, staying home from work when sick and teleworking should be happening more often.

“We can all be virus killers,” Marcozzi said. “An individual, a business, a health care system, public health, everyone owns a piece of this response.”

Marcozzi and his team have been preparing for COVID-19’s advance since the end of January, working seven-day weeks and typically working more than 16 hours a day.

The typical day is filled with conference calls and text messages, preparing system employees to know their jobs for if and when the virus grows in the state.

Officials have also recommended that people avoid large gatherings.

The most dramatic response to the confirmed cases came from Johns Hopkins University, where officials barred spectators from watching the first and second rounds of the Division-III men’s basketball tournament the university is hosting Friday and Saturday.

In addition to the three Maryland cases, a student at Yeshiva University is among the confirmed cases in New York. Yeshiva is one of the teams playing at Johns Hopkins this weekend.

Yeshiva also had issues finding accommodations because of that case. The team’s coach said a Pikesville hotel canceled its reservations because of the Yeshiva University case.

The WOW-Women of the World Festival Baltimore, scheduled for Saturday, March 7, at the Inner Harbor’s Columbus Center, had earlier been canceled.

The University System of Maryland, which oversees most of the state’s public universities, said it would be developing university protocols on the health needs of students, distance learning, travel, and major public gatherings on campus.

In a statement Friday, Chancellor Jay Perman said he was encouraging, but not mandating, universities to engage in social distancing and to limit large gatherings where possible.

“Where large gatherings can be canceled, postponed, or taken to an online environment, that is what I am asking campus leaders to consider,” he said in a statement. “’Large gatherings’ include ceremonies, sports events, symposia, concerts, even large seminar classes. I am not issuing a mandate, but I am advising that we be smart, and apply our best judgment to a situation that is changing hourly.”

Several Maryland universities have also canceled their spring and summer study abroad programs.

Transit agencies are watching CDC guidelines and keeping in touch with state officials.

“MDOT MTA management meets regularly to review plans to ensure continuity of operations,” the agency said in a statement. “Vehicles are cleaned daily and we will adjust cleaning schedules based on guidance from the MDH and CDC.”

The General Assembly

One of the largest gatherings of people from around the state right now happens five days a week: the 90-day session of the General Assembly.

Del. Wayne Hartman, a Republican state legislator in Maryland who represents parts of Wicomico and Worcester counties, stops at a hand-sanitizer dispenser on the ground floor of the Maryland State House on Friday, March, 6, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. The dispenser was placed near an entrance this week state officials are urging people to keep calm but take precautions due to coronavirus. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Del. Wayne Hartman, a Republican state legislator in Maryland who represents parts of Wicomico and Worcester counties, stops at a hand-sanitizer dispenser on the ground floor of the Maryland State House on Friday, March, 6, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. The dispenser was placed near an entrance this week state officials are urging people to keep calm but take precautions due to coronavirus. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

And while COVID-19 has some state legislatures preparing for the possibility of lengthy delays or early ends to sessions, Maryland’s legislative leaders are taking a decidedly keep calm, carry on approach.

“My biggest takeaway is this body has not recessed early or adjourned early since the civil war,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, told the Maryland Senate Friday morning after the announcement of three cases of the illness were confirmed in Montgomery County. “There is no reason whatsoever to think this year will in any way be different. We faced a lot of different things since the civil war and this session has gone on. That is what we will do moving forward.”

Colorado lawmakers this week were encouraged to begin prioritizing legislation to pass and prepare for the potential of a lengthy hiatus or even ending its legislative session early. 

Earlier in the week, hand-sanitizing stations began popping up around the Maryland State House office complex. 

Ferguson, speaking to senators Friday morning, urged lawmakers to observe best practices including hand washing, coughing into elbows and encouraging staff who are ill to remain home. He also urged lawmakers to be judicious about the information they share on social media.

“Rely on trusted sources,” said Ferguson. “The risk of disruption and panic is greater than infection itself. Now is the time to rely on sources that are reliable.”

The Maryland Constitution mandates the start of the 90-day session every year in January and ending 90 calendar days later in April.

The House and Senate can mutually decide to adjourn from the 90-day session. A three-fifths majority of both chambers is required if that hiatus will last more than three days. 

The legislature from time to time has had to modify its work and meeting schedules for less than three days because of snowstorms. There is no record of lengthy closures in recent records.

In a joint statement, Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones said they “continue to monitor the COVID-19 virus and other public health concerns. We are continuing to consult with the office of the Attorney General on options should the need arise, but at the present time there are no plans for any changes to the regular course of the Legislative Session.”

The Senate gave final approval Friday to Hogan’s emergency bill that allows him to draw $50 million from the rainy day fund for coronavirus efforts. The state is also likely to recoup some of that funding from the federal government.

Nursing homes

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have become an area of focus for public health officials. The residents of these facilities can be at greater risk of contracting a serious version of COVID-19 and a Washington State long-term care facility has been at the center of that state’s outbreak.

Those facilities and Veterans Affairs facilities could be at the greatest risk, Marcozzi said.

“Those are areas that are areas of risk because the populations that they are housing or treating … are areas that this virus targets and has higher mortality,” he said. 

Travis Gayles, Montgomery County’s chief health officer, said his office was prioritizing these facilities. They have been an area of focus for the Maryland Department of Health as well. The department held a webinar for these facilities last month.

“(The department) has provided education to facilities about the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and has asked facilities to be particularly vigilant in recognizing and reporting potential cases of COVID-19,” a department statement said. “Additionally, facilities have been asked to monitor their staff for signs of respiratory illness, to review and update visitor policies, to re-educate staff about infection prevention practices such as hand washing, to take inventory of available personal protective equipment, and to create plans to prepare for PPE shortages.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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