A key adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan on battling the COVID-19 pandemic said he has largely agreed with the Republican governor’s actions — until the governor’s decision earlier this week to lift some restrictions.
In a briefing with reporters from around the country, Tom Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, suggested Hogan is moving too fast and that it is not yet known whether recent reopenings will cause a spike in infections within the state.
“I think I’d wait a few more weeks before making any changes,” Inglesby said. “We’ve had a lot of changes at once.”
Hogan Wednesday announced an immediate removal of limits on public gatherings, including indoor dining and, in about a week, large indoor areas including malls and casinos.
Hogan announced his road map to reopening on April 24. Since May, the governor has gradually eased restrictions almost on a weekly basis, moving the state into stage two of his plan with some venues — casinos as an example — in stage three being slated to reopen in a week.
Added to the mix of phased-in reopenings around the state are the large number of protests in Maryland and across the nation following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Inglesby said he understands the reasons behind the protests and is personally supportive of them but that they create an increased risk of transmission of the virus.
“We need to be ready for the possible rise in COVID cases from the peaceful demonstrations that have been occurring, and we need to do what we can to lower the risks of those protests, said Inglesby.
Inglesby said there hasn’t been enough time to observe how the outbreak has been affected by changes already announced by Hogan. An increase in cases might not be seen for two weeks, with a spike in hospitalizations coming maybe two weeks after that.
“I’d wait at least a few more weeks before making any other changes,” said Inglesby. “I think we’ve had a lot of changes at once, we’ve had protests, we’ve had all the reopenings I mentioned before and we haven’t really had very much time.”
Hogan has, in recent weeks, touted the support he has from his panel of public health experts, which includes Inglesby. Those experts have largely been absent from recent announcements.
“There is nothing too surprising about Dr. Inglesby’s comments,” said Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman. “We should expect the health experts to say, stay closed as long as you can, and the small business owners and business leaders to say, open as soon as you can.”
Hogan has weekly calls with his advisory team. Ricci said Inglesby was not able to be on the call prior to Wednesday’s announcements but was “generally aware” of what the governor was going to say.
“We staggered stage one into two parts, and now we have staggered stage two into at least three parts,” Ricci said. “Overall, we are now nearly four weeks into our reopenings, and all of our key metrics–including hospitalizations and ICU beds — continue to trend in a positive direction.”
The governor’s order to shut down and the gradual reopening has seen the state take a dramatic economic hit, with more than 750,000 Marylanders filing unemployment claims over the last 12 weeks and business owners protesting the governor’s orders.
“In terms of the policy decisions, and what takes precedence, the governor actually addressed this at (Wednesday’s) press conference, when he cited what Dr. (David) Marcozzi said on this week’s call, about how we need to balance the economic model and the harm reduction model,” Ricci said. “It’s about striking a balance, not one thing taking precedence over another.”
Inglesby said the number of daily cases should fall below the current trend. Maryland still records more than 500 cases per day.
Inglesby said he is worried that Maryland would follow trends seen in states such as California, Texas and Arizona, which are seeing rises in cases following moves to reopen. Inglesby said he agrees with the need to balance public health concerns with the severe economic hardships caused by efforts to mitigate the spread.
Inglesby said the public needs to understand that the virus is still a threat and is not in the rearview mirror.
“I’m worried that people have kind of accepted where we are as a new normal and it is not normal. Some states have hundreds or even thousands of new COVID cases every day and we can do better than this,” he said.
“Are we resigned to losing 1,000 Americans a day until we have a vaccine?” said Inglesby. “I hope we aren’t.”
Also among Hogan’s announcements was the resumption of some summer school activities as parents and educators begin to look to the fall and how the pandemic might affect the coming academic year.
“We need to learn more about the risks associated with opening schools,” said Inglesby, who called for more efforts to study the issue beginning with summer schools that have started around the country. ”
“The concern is we don’t know whether or not kids in schools will accelerate the spread within those institutions and then transmit the disease to their teachers or administrators, who are older, or to family — parents, grandparents — at home,” he said.
Maryland has seen a number of largely positive trends including a more than two-week decline in hospitalizations, a key indicator watched by Hogan. The governor, speaking on Wednesday, declared that the state had crushed, not flattened the curve, because of “early and aggressive” actions including stay-at-home orders and closing of non-essential businesses.
“I think it’s difficult to say in terms of probability but I would be worried that if we do now end limits to indoor gatherings, if we do restart conventions, if we do open casinos and restaurants and we do all these things at once coming on the heels of doing a number of other things about 12 days ago, I am worried we will increase our risk of having a resurgence of cases,” said Inglesby.
“I hope I’m wrong and I don’t know that it will happen for sure. Perhaps the collective behavior of every individual in the state will be a strong force against that but we know that mass gatherings, large gatherings are the places where big outbreaks have happened in the U.S. and around the world. We’ve seen it over and over again.”