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Hogan senior aides test positive for COVID-19 after OC conference

(This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 25)

Three senior aides to Gov. Larry Hogan have tested positive for COVID-19 after some of them attended the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City.

The update Wednesday lowers the total number of known confirmed cases on Hogan’s staff by one from a previously reported four. The confirmation of infections shocked few who attended the annual conference on the shore. The report sent some scrambling for tests to rule out infections.

“Just this morning I had to get a COVID test because I was notified that there were case reported from last week’s Maryland Association of Counties conference,” said Montgomery County Executive Mark Elrich. “I’m vaccinated. I feel fine. But I am aware that I can still be a carrier. I can still be infected and this is what we all need to do if you;ve been exposed. Even if you’ve been vaccinated.

The county executive said he had a rapid test that came back negative.

“That is a relief,” he said. “No mistaking that.”

Elrich said other unnamed members of his staff who attended the convention also were tested at the same time

“I don’t know the results for everyone else,” said Elrich, adding sarcastically the tests were a hurried reaction to being notified of other convention attendees who tested positive. “I know we just got the happy news last night.”

News of the post-conference infections started circulating late Tuesday afternoon.

That evening, Kata Hall, a Hogan spokeswoman, confirmed that four people had initially tested positive. Of those, at least two were seen attending the association of counties conference. Three of the four are part of Hogan’s senior staff.

By Wednesday, Hall said one of the initial four who had tested positive with a rapid test subsequently was confirmed negative after taking a PCR test. The rapid antigen tests are known to be more likely to return false positives which then usually require a PCR test confirmation.

“While we cannot disclose any personal health information, COVID-19 positive cases have affected multiple members of the governor’s staff,” said Hall, a spokesperson for Hogan. “All testing, notification, and quarantining protocols have been followed, in accordance with CDC guidance, and contact tracing is underway.”

Hall said all of the governor’s staff have been fully vaccinated. Those who tested positive are “feeling fine,” she said in a post on Twitter.

About 2,500 people attended the annual conference this year after it went virtual last year because of the pandemic.

The association alerted attendees to the positive tests in an email to conference attendees Tuesday night:

“It has come to our attention that several individuals who attended MACo’s Summer Conference between the dates of August 18-21, 2021 have since tested positive for COVID-19,” the email said. “Vaccination, masking, and social distancing are the most effective defenses against contracting the virus. We are thankful that the majority of conference participants followed this guidance from public health organizations, at MACo’s urging. We are hopeful that following these safety precautions helped protect our larger list of participants.”

In many ways the convention was similar to those held on non-pandemic years but with a number of receptions where mask use was recommended. At one party, a number of attendees said few if any people were seen wearing face coverings.

Worcester County is considered an area of high transmission risk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be worn in all indoor public spaces.

Hogan, who ended a state of emergency and the related masking and social distancing requirements in July, has come under pressure from some lawmakers and other county leaders to resume those mandates.

So far, Hogan has resisted saying those decisions are best left to local leader and individual businesses. Instead, the governor has emphasized the importance of vaccinations as a way to further contain the pandemic.

Organizers of the four-day convention encouraged mask use, and many attendees wore masks and observed social distancing protocols. Hogan could be seen wearing a mask when he entered the convention center, but others, including Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democratic candidate for governor, were seen making the rounds without masks.

“It was about 50-50 on who was masked indoors and who wasn’t,” said Elrich. “The fact that the outbreak (at the conference) is no surprise to anyone. A number of us were disappointed that MACo decided not to require masks and we know that a number of people who normally would have attended the conference, particularly adults with children, decided not to attend the conference because they didn’t want to risk making their children sick by bringing them with them or risking getting an infection and bringing it home to their kids.”

Association leaders were criticized by some conservative county officials after sending an email in advance of the conference “strongly encouraging” the use of masks while in the convention center.

Hogan on Sunday announced that he had received a booster dose of the vaccine, which has been authorized for immuno-compromised people and others potentially at high risk for contracting the virus. The governor has previously been treated for cancer and meets federal guidelines for a booster shot.

“Out of an abundance of caution, both the governor and lieutenant governor received COVID tests, which came back negative. All members of the governor’s staff are fully vaccinated,” said Hall.