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Baltimore County declares state of emergency as virus cases rise

Baltimore County’s top elected official has declared a new state of emergency as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the state’s third-largest jurisdiction.

County Executive John Olszewski Jr. made the announcement Tuesday, citing a need to expand the county’s ability to respond to the ongoing pandemic.

“Government has an obligation to do all we can to protect the health, safety and well-being of our residents,” Olszewski said in a statement. “While we’ve made undeniable progress in our fight against this deadly virus, the rapid emergence of the delta variant has made it clear that we need access to every tool in our toolbox to be able to respond to it,” Olszewski said. “We remain committed to doing whatever is necessary to keep our residents as safe as possible and to ensure that when our children go back to school next week they can remain where they belong: inside the classroom.”

The order makes Baltimore County the first to return to a state of emergency since July. Gov. Larry Hogan phased out a statewide order beginning July 1. The final phase, which covered so-called grace period regulations, ended on Aug. 15.
 
The change in Baltimore County implements no new orders, restrictions or mandates. It does lay the groundwork for other announcements in the near future. 
 
A spokesman for the county executive said changes to vaccine mandates for county employees, mask use and other orders are all potential options as conditions warrant. The state of emergency announced Tuesday provides “quick access” to tools needed to control the spread of the virus.

Since July 30, 2021, the seven-day case rate in Baltimore County has increased 376 percent even as  74% of residents 12 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine, Olszewski said. The CDC reports that 69% of county residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated. The total is less than 60% of all county residents. 

As of Tuesday morning, the county remained in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s classification for substantial risk of transmission. At that level, the federal agency recommends the use of masks in all indoor public spaces.

Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones said in a statement that the continued spread of the virus and the delta variant is “deeply concerning.”

The council is expected to hold a vote that could allow the state of emergency to continue beyond Aug. 31.

“I am certain my colleagues will agree that we must take every step to protect our residents by ensuring our government has all the tools to protect the public’s health, and I will convene an emergency council meeting to extend the local state of emergency within the next week,” Jones said in the statement. 

The announcement comes at a time when state and local leaders are pinning their hopes of increasing vaccination rates on the Federal Drug Administration granting full approval to the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine now branded as Comirnaty.

The CDC places the entire state in the high transmission risk category, and while 80% of people 18 and older in Maryland have been vaccinated the number represents only slightly more than 60% of the total state population.

Cases per capita and hospitalizations also continue to rise. The total number of patients hospitalized surpassed 700 for the first time since May 17.

In Anne Arundel County, County Executive Steuart Pittman said he hoped the new FDA approval would cause businesses in his county to impose mandates. The first-term Democrat said he was not ready to impose a flat-out vaccination mandates on county employees.

“We are going to look at that. We continue to look at that, but we’re not ready to make changes at this point,” he said.

Starting Sept. 13, employees in Anne Arundel must be vaccinated or be able to show a negative COVID-19 test. The test or vaccination policy prevents disruptions in county services, Pittman said.

“That option we believe contributes to safety in the workplace, to slowing the spread of the virus while accommodating some folks who we may not agree with them but we don’t want to lose them,” he said.

A spokesman for the Anne Arundel County school system said a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff is being discussed but no decision has been made.

Hospitalizations in the state’s fourth-most populous county have increased to 55 at its two hospitals, up from a low of 10 earlier in the summer. County officials said “the vast majority of people who are hospitalized are unvaccinated.” The few who are vaccinated but hospitalized have underlying health conditions, according to Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman.

“Hospitalizations are really what we’re going to key in on as more and more people get vaccinated,” said Kalyanaraman, adding that COVID vaccines are “more effective than the flu vaccine”

“We’re ready for (vaccinations) to pick up,” the health officer said. “I’m ready to see more people get it.”

The county reported six total COVID deaths in the last week, the most in three months. The county’s case rate is up to 17 per 100,000 people — about twice the level it was at on Aug. 2 when Pittman implemented mask requirements in county buildings.

“It means that there is a lot of spread. We are not at the highest category of spread according to the CDC,” said Kalyanaraman. “This is particularly relevant as we’re coming up on school openings.”

Ann Arundel County is imposing mask mandates in schools when classes begin.

Pittman said short of an authorization from the governor, he would need a super majority of the county council to approve a countywide mask mandate for indoor spaces. He noted that three councilmembers “have opposed every mandate that we put into effect.”

“We don’t believe that we have the votes to do it. Even if we did, we’re not sure yet we’d do (it),” he said. “It does look like with this case rate that we’re getting to a place where the CDC clearly has said there should be masks in indoor places and we’ll be looking carefully at that if we can actually implement it.”