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Md. counties take aim at state over coronavirus testing

Hogan says local officials don't understand the process

Bryan P. Sears//May 15, 2020

Md. counties take aim at state over coronavirus testing

Hogan says local officials don't understand the process

By Bryan P. Sears

//May 15, 2020

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, left, stands with Gov. Larry Hogan during a press conference April 22, 2020 in Laurel. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, left, stands with Gov. Larry Hogan during a press conference April 22, 2020 in Laurel. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Local officials are taking a page out of the national pandemic playbook, calling on state government to provide needed COVID-19 test kits and supplies before easing restrictions on daily life in their communities.

Leaders of Maryland counties that have announced a delayed entry into phase one of a plan to reopen society and the economy are complaining that more help is needed from the state in the way of testing and other supplies while also complimenting Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration for efforts in mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The calls are similar to those leveled at President Donald Trump and federal officials as governors struggled to get ahead of the virus in their states.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks Thursday praised the “seamless communication” with Hogan and  state officials but said the county needs more testing and protective equipment as well as contact tracers. Requests to the state have as yet gone unfulfilled, she said.

“We can’t reopen because we don’t have the resources that we need to do so safely,” she said.

Prince George’s is home to the largest number of cases and deaths in the state. Combined with neighboring Montgomery County, the two jurisdictions account 1 of every 2 positive cases so far.

Alsobrooks called for the state to assist with more testing so that she can open up two new sites in the northern and southern portions of her county.

“We need the state to do its part,” Alsobrooks said.

It was a theme repeated in a series of news conferences Thursday as leaders of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, and Montgomery counties and Baltimore city all announced plans to delay reopening their counties or only allow some activities envisioned under the first phase of Hogan’s reopening plan.

“To date, the state has failed to provide local jurisdictions, including Baltimore City, with the testing resources we need to be able to safely reopen,” said Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. “I’d very much like to reopen, but until the state steps up to the plate and provides us with testing help it would be irresponsible for us to relax our restrictions.”

Hogan’s plan, in effect at 5 p.m. on April 15, rescinds his six-week old “stay-at-home” order, replacing it with a “safe-at-home” advisory that allows Marylanders freedom to leave their homes and communities for trips previously discouraged because they were deemed non-essential.

After the order is lifted, retail stores will be able to open to 50% capacity, with masking and distancing measures. Manufacturing will also be allowed to resume, with measures in place to protect workers.

Personal services such as barber shops will be able to reopen at 50% of capacity, and religious services can resume, with outdoor services strongly encouraged.

But many of the state’s most populous counties are not fully entering phase one or delaying it with local stay-at-home orders, citing large numbers of cases and hospitalizations and a lack of testing and other supplies.

Nearly a month ago, Hogan announced the acquisition of 500,000 test kits from South Korea. At the time, he justified the move as necessary because Trump had told governors that they would have to do more to secure the supplies they needed.

Prior to the $9 million purchase of those kits, Hogan had set what he described as a lofty goal of 10,000 tests per day. After receiving the kits, the governor doubled his previous goal. But he warned that deploying the kits could take time as the state lacked swabs, chemicals and test tube packaging needed to collect samples and transfer them to labs where the kits would be used.

On Thursday, Hogan announced that the state received 75,000 swabs and collection supplies from FEMA, a portion of the 350,000 requested by the state. FEMA has agreed to supply about 60% of the state’s request.

Hogan, during that news conference, said those kits are being used for test samples from hot spots including nursing homes.

The exact amount of testing in the state, including how many tests are being done by state and local health departments and private labs, has been difficult to discern. Daily data on positive and negative tests often combine results from multiple days because of lags in processing.

Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, called on Hogan to be more transparent about testing capabilities and said the state has yet to reach 5,000 daily test results.

“I’m relieved that the state finally has all the components that it needs,” said Brown. “Now the administration needs to deploy (the tests) quickly to Prince George’s County so that we can open test sites up in our hard hit communities.”

Hogan, however, said Brown and others have a fundamental misunderstanding of the test kits, saying that those purchased are not for use in the field but in labs after samples are collected from patients believed to be infected.

“These go to labs, tests that scientists use to do when they finalize the testing,” said Hogan. “They don’t go out to anywhere. What goes out are the swabs and the extraction tubes, where they stick the thing in your nose. They put it inside a plastic tube with an agent, and they send those off to the lab that takes the test kit and does the study and sends (the results) back.”

As for kits going to local governments, Hogan said: “That’s never going to happen and was never part of the plan.”

Similarly, Hogan is getting pressure from lawmakers. On Thursday Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones sent a joint letter to Hogan asking for additional transparency, especially involving testing.

“The evidence from around the world — and America — is overwhelming: The only way to safely reopen offices, job sites, churches, and schools is when a vaccine or ubiquitous testing and tracing are available,” said Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince and Anne Arundel counties and a member of the legislature’s Joint COVID-19 Work Group. “Maryland can’t depend on a vaccine anytime soon.”



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