As Maryland moves toward easing pandemic restrictions, the leader of the hardest-hit jurisdiction in the state says her county is not ready to back off many of the protections that have been put in place.
“I know this is difficult, but I have to ask you to please trust me and just hang on a little while longer,” said Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks during a Friday news conference. “We’re going to move as quickly as we can to reopen.”
Prince George’s plight and its move to reopen at a slower pace mirror what is happening in many states in the country. Counties and cities that have a high number of COVID-19 infections want to retain shutdown orders, while areas that have seen few cases are impatient to get their businesses up and running again.
That dynamic is likely to result in towns and counties right next to each other operating under different advisories.
As of Friday, Prince George’s County reported 8,840 confirmed cases — nearly one-third of the state’s total — and the 297 virus related deaths in the jurisdiction represent 20% of the total reported so far in Maryland. The high-density population and its geographical location near the District of Columbia make the county a unique case within the state, Alsobrooks said.
Alsobrooks said she understands the difficulties created by the efforts to slow the spread of the virus, from distancing of families and friends to the financial hardships caused by the closure of businesses.
“While the rest of the state may open, we must take a measured and smart approach to opening non-essential businesses and resuming gatherings with families, and friends and neighbors,” the county executive said.
There are more than 60,000 newly unemployed in the county. Alsobrooks said she hears the calls to reopen so that people can go back to work.
“We are not deaf to that,” said Alsobrooks. “We are trying to save lives, but we also care about people’s livelihoods.”
As of Friday, there were nearly 30,500 confirmed cases and 1,453 deaths in Maryland.
But statistics that the state is using as benchmarks for a possible move to reopen and reboot the economy, including hospitalizations and use of intensive care beds, have shown decreases or are flattening over the last week.
Prince George’s County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said the numbers in his county paint a very different picture.
“We are still in the thick of the fight,” he said.
Hospitalizations are up in the county from 125 a month ago to 256 today. Also, intensive care beds are more in demand, with four of five hospitals in the county reporting 70 percent usage in the last week.
Prior to the pandemic, the county would have had about 81 beds used across the county. On Friday, that number was at 112 beds. The county is seeing nine COVID-19 related deaths per day, according to Carter.
“Our curve has not flattened,” said Carter. “I want to make that clear.”
In order to begin to reopen, Carter said, the county would need to see 14 consecutive days of lower positive tests and hospitalizations.
“If we move too quickly our numbers will start to rise again and we’ll have to scale back,” he said “I want to avoid that.”
Other states are experiencing the same quandary as Maryland. In Florida, for instance, Gov. Ron DeSantis kept restrictions in place in the Miami-Palm Beach area while easing them elsewhere. In Tennessee, local health authorities in urban counties have announced they are not following relaxed restrictions announced by Gov. Bill Lee.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan said he is hopeful that the recent statewide trend of lower hospitalizations would continue and allow Maryland to move into phase one of his reopening plan.
If that happens, Prince George’s County would likely not move forward with the rest of the state.
“No, we’re not ready,” said Carter. “As long as we have an increase in daily COVID positive cases we are not flattening.”
Alsobrooks and Carter said part of the key to reopening will be an increase in testing.
Currently, the county tests about 5,000 people per week.
“It’s not enough,” said Alsobrooks.
The county is contracting with private companies to increase testing to about 10,000 people per week and open two new sites, one in the northern portion of the county and another in southern Prince George’s County.
Alsobrooks said her goal is to increase testing to 15,000 people per week.
On Wednesday, the governor announced the easing of some restrictions, including the resumption of elective surgeries and procedures, as well as the lifting of restrictions on outdoor activities, such as golf, and the reopening of state parks and beaches for walking.
But Hogan reiterated the need to continue social distancing and to use masks. His ban on non-essential travel and a state of emergency remain in place.
His announcement came just as Ocean City is preparing to open its boardwalk and the beach to the public, though businesses along the boardwalk are to remain closed.