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State employees, department leaders at odds over PPE distribution

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George's, sponsor of the House version of the "red flag" bill that went into effect Oct. 1. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s, says the Hogan administration hasn’t explained how it decided to apportion PPE to each county. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Members of the General Assembly Tuesday called for more oversight of how state departments are protecting employees from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate called for more hearings and complained that testimony given by four state agencies was contradicted by state employees. One Republican lawmaker expressed anger at the conflicting testimony during a joint hearing on issues on the availability and use of personal protective equipment by state employees.

“Either we’ve been hoodwinked or lied to. We need to find out what the truth is and when and how we are going to straighten this out,” said Del. Rick Metzger, R-Dundalk. “I’m very upset. I’m fumigating, as a matter of fact.”

Members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees took testimony from four state agencies — the Departments of Health, Public Safety and Correctional Services, Juvenile Services, and Human Services — on the availability of protective gear as well as measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus, such as testing and contract tracing.

Repeatedly, lawmakers were told that early difficulties in obtaining such equipment had been overcome and employees were properly protected. The statements were later contradicted by state employees from the same agencies — all members of AFSCME, the state’s largest employee union.

Gregg Todd, deputy secretary for operations at the Maryland Department of Health, said issues related to obtaining supplies of protective equipment had been addressed and that masks, gowns, gloves and face shields were being distributed to state agencies and local health departments.

“There was a time when I had PPE nightmares because we just couldn’t get anything,” Todd told the committee, adding that gear was being distributed based on a tier system in which the equipment was sent to agencies based on how much direct contact they potentially have with patients infected with the virus.

“At this point, we are meeting the need,” said Todd, speaking about equipment being sent to counties. “Thirty days ago, we were not, just based on supply. We have gotten to the point where local health departments have asked us to not send so much at a time because they were having a hard time stockpiling what we were sending them because we had caught up.”

The hearing comes one day after a correctional officer at the City Detention Center died after contracting the illness. The death is the first among employees in state prison and detention facilities.

Christopher McCully, deputy secretary of administration for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, told the committees that over 1.3 million pieces of protective equipment had been given out.

“The department is in a comfortable position with its PPE supply and is prepared should there be an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases,” he said.

Masks, gowns, hand sanitizer and other items have been manufactured by Maryland Correctional Enterprises as well as other sources, including FEMA and outside vendors, he said.

Members of the union, which has feuded with Hogan since he became governor in 2015, immediately contradicted assertions and said leaders of agencies are not always forthcoming or communicative about policies related to the disease. Equipment — laptops to work from home and personal protective gear — have been in short supply and slow to be distributed.

The conflicting testimony touched off anger among Democrats and at least one Republican.

“What we’re finding is reports that are completely opposite of what we’ve been told,” said Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s.

Sen. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery, agreed, saying legislators heard “from the administration how things are just fine and smooth and then we hear from the folks in the field, the front line, telling us a very different story. I agree, maybe we should have heard from the folks who are on the front lines before we heard from the departments and the agencies.”

Other lawmakers including Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Dels. Geraldine Valentino-Smith and Kirill Reznik, Democrats from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, respectively, voiced concerns that Hogan and his department secretaries were not fully transparent when lawmakers have questions.

Valentino-Smith questioned numbers provided by the Department of Health regarding how protective equipment was doled out to counties, noting that Caroline County,  rural and mostly Republican, had 273 cases of the virus but received 135,000 specialized masks. Prince George’s County, a predominantly Democratic county which has the most cases at more than 16,600, had received 783,000 of the same masks. She raised concerns that politics was in play.

“It doesn’t make sense or match up to the severity of the problem,” said Valentino-Smith.

Reznik said the administration continues to dodge questions about 500,000 COVID-19 test kits purchased from South Korea. Hogan announced the purchase in April.

Reznik said the ballyhoo of the announcement has been followed by state officials’ stonewalling when asked about how the tests are being used. A letter sent to him Tuesday in response to questions contained what he called “a rehashing” of Hogan’s “testing policy and plans” and lab contracts.

“Frankly, at this point, there is no reason to not suspect that something nefarious is going on with the procurement process of both PPEs and testing kits through the Department of Health and the COVID emergency response group of the administration,” said Reznik. “We’re not getting any answers.”

 

 

 

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