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Hogan urges calm but continued precautions with latest virus variant

“We don’t know what we’re going to find out over the next couple of weeks,” said Hogan. (AP File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan Wednesday called on Marylanders to remain calm in the face of a new COVID-19 variant and continue to practice the basics that have almost become second nature during a nearly two-year pandemic.

Hogan, on the same day that the first omicron variant coronavirus case was reported in the United States, told reporters the state is monitoring the new mutation. But the governor acknowledged it might be too early for detailed information.

“The White House doesn’t know enough to update us either,” said Hogan, stressing that it was not a time to panic.

“We’re having this announcement today because there’s a lot of questions out there and I wanted to share what we know,” he said. “But again, we don’t know a lot.”

The World Health Organization in the last week designated the omicron variant, which features at least 50 different mutations, a variant of concern.

Much remains unknown about the new mutations. Scientists have yet to determine if omicron is more transmissible or makes people sicker. It is also not known yet how effective current vaccines and coronavirus treatments will be against the mutation, or if those who recovered from a previous infection would be susceptible to the new form.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find out over the next couple of weeks,” said Hogan. “We’re trying to do everything we can to address a potential situation. We could find out in the next two weeks that this does not cause more severe illness or hospitalizations or deaths, and since we’re so well vaccinated and the vaccines still work, it’s not a problem at all.”

Still, Hogan urged common sense and personal responsibility, calling for people to wear masks if they are in crowds and to get fully vaccinated or obtain a booster shot, if eligible. He also recommended COVID-19 tests before and after traveling.

The governor said there was no reason to consider canceling holiday plans.

“We don’t want to tell anyone not to get together for the holidays,” said Hogan. “Just be safe.”

The governor added that he did not believe it was time for an early end to a mask requirement for children in public schools. That mandate is set to expire in February but was the subject of debate Wednesday afternoon during a meeting of the Maryland State Board of Education.

On Wednesday, moments before Hogan spoke to reporters, California health officials reported  the first known case of the new strain in the United States after an individual who had returned from a trip to South Africa tested positive for the virus on Nov. 29.

Hogan said the state will continue to promote vaccinations and boosters as well as testing for anyone who feels sick.

“If omicron does come to Maryland, we will find it and track it down,” said Hogan.

The governor said the state will continue to rely on the state testing lab and partnerships with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins to sequence positive tests and identify mutated virus strains.

Maryland in the last month has started to see an expected seasonal increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.  So far, the state has not seen some of the more dire projections for the fall come to fruition.

On Wednesday, the state reported 1,142 new cases. The nearly 970 cases per day based on a rolling seven-day average is 2 percent higher than a week ago and nearly 33% higher than on Nov. 1.

The 698 total hospitalizations on Dec. 1 is 24% higher than Nov. 1. It is the most total hospitalizations since Oct. 15.

Maryland’s positivity rate is above 5% for the first time since late August and is nearly 74% higher than Nov. 1. The state’s 16 cases per 100,000 population is the most since Oct. 14 and 36% higher than at the start of November.

Still, the state’s vaccination rate of nearly 79% fully vaccinated appears to be staving off higher case numbers seen in other areas of the country.

“We’ve been stressing the kinds of things that we’ve been stressing from the beginning,” Hogan said. “You really need to get vaccinated. You need to get boosted. You should get tested.”