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Amid glimmer of optimism, Hogan empowers local officials to shut down ‘unsafe’ facilities

Gov. Larry Hogan removes a face mask that was made by prisoners in Maryland’s correctional system on Tuesday before speaking at a press conference in Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Gov. Larry Hogan removes a face mask, which was made by prisoners in Maryland’s correctional system, before speaking at a Tuesday news conference in Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland might avoid the projected worst-case scenarios for illnesses and deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday.

Hogan and his team of public health advisers cautiously offered a glimmer of optimism even as the governor announced the formation of so-called medical strike teams to battle the disease, especially at nursing homes. The governor also put businesses on notice that he has authorized local health and police departments to shut them down should they ignore his directives to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Hogan said the death and infection rates in Maryland could have been “astronomical.”

Hogan said he now believes social distancing and decisions to shut down the vast majority of businesses in the state while ordering residents to stay home “dramatically lowered the potential for that, hopefully in America but particularly here in Maryland, so that worst-case scenario is not going to happen.”

But Hogan also urged caution.

“We don’t know exactly how many people are going to be infected,” he said. “We don’t know how many people are going to be hospitalized or how many deaths but at least my hope is we’re not going to get near the worst-case scenario. That it’s going to be hopefully a lot closer to a best-case scenario.”

Despite his optimistic words, Hogan issued an executive order aimed at businesses he said continue to operate but fail to maintain social distancing requirements.

“However, there are reports of a few businesses that are failing to comply with the law and who are potentially putting their customers and their staff at risk,” Hogan said.

Local health departments and police departments can order the businesses to comply with the directives, limit access to the businesses or shut those businesses down, Hogan said.

The governor also announced the creation of strike teams of doctors, nurses and other health professionals as well as Maryland National Guard members who can travel the state assisting in assessing patients and setting up care, equipment and supplies. Hogan said Maryland is the first state to establish such teams.

The teams will be divided into groups –assistance teams that will determine equipment and supply needs and triage nursing home residents, and clinical teams of medical professionals that will provide on-site medical triage and stabilize nursing home patients.

Nearly 90 nursing homes in the state report cases of infection.

The governor also announced that the state will begin releasing detailed demographic information. In recent days, state lawmakers and others have called for the release of such data in an effort to track the virus and whether minorities are disproportionately affected.

Hogan said the data would be released but said it would be incomplete because many hospitals and private testing labs that also do tests do not collect or report that information.

Hogan and Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips and others have repeatedly declined to discuss specific models that are informing their decisions since the first three cases and a state of emergency were announced on March 5.

Hogan said that while the peak number of cases won’t be high, the actions taken mean that it will take longer for the state to get back to normal. When to lift the executive orders and try to go back to life before the pandemic is still a big question.

“That’s going to be the hardest question of all,” said Hogan. “We’re anxious to get everybody back to their normal lives as quickly as we can but the last thing that we want to do is bring them back too fast to where we just ramp this thing back up and the virus spreads.”

Hogan said the life might slowly phase back to normal over a period of time.

“It won’t be like we flip a switch and everything’s back to normal,” he said. “We want to make sure we don’t go back to it being a problem again.”

Dr. Tom Iglesby, director at the Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and a member of Hogan’s public health advisory team, agreed.

“One of the preconditions is getting numbers down quite low, never to zero probably, but a very low, manageable number so that public health experts can be aware of all the cases in the state and can try to manage them, isolate them, track their contacts,” he said.

Iglesby also said the state needs to continue to stockpile masks and other essential items “so that if there is a surge in the future we’re not in this position where we’re so short on masks and short on space and ventilators.”

Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia were designated as a COVID-19 hot spots Monday  by the federal government. A dozen jurisdictions in the state, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Harford, Howard, Prince George’s, and Montgomery counties as well as Baltimore city are all part of the designation.

As of Tuesday, the state had reported 4,371 confirmed cases of the virus and 103 deaths.

The increase in the number of confirmed cases dropped for the second consecutive day. And while public health doctors noted the decreases, they cautioned that it is too soon to know if the decreases are meaningful.

Still, Hogan and his team continue to prepare for the worst-case scenario — numbers which they have never made public — by opening up a 250-bed hospital unit inside the Baltimore Convention Center. In recent days, there have also been news stories about state requests to FEMA for 15,000 body bags (the state so far as received none) and State Health Secretary Robert “Bobby Neall telling members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents that the state had secured two ice rinks to potentially serve as makeshift morgues to handle large numbers of the dead.

“Had we not instituted all of the dramatic actions we’ve taken over the past 32 days, based on the models that we’re hearing about … if we just let this run its course and had the spike and overloaded the health care system, then we would need those kinds of numbers and the death rates and the infection rates would be astronomical,” said Hogan.

Hogan called the stories of Neall’s public comments about ice rinks, which were made during the regents meeting and recorded by a Daily Record reporter, “false reports” and said the state hasn’t leased such space and that only one rink is under consideration for such use.

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