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Hogan declares new state of emergency as COVID surge rapidly fills hospitals

Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday authorized a new state of emergency as state officials brace for a COVID-19 surge that could push hospitalizations related to the coronavirus to more than 5,000.

The new order, the first since the state exited a lengthy state of emergency in August, comes with new executive orders giving the state health secretary wider authority to limit elective surgeries at hospitals. A second order would allow the health secretary to authorize retired health care workers or those from out of state to return to work to ease staffing shortages.

“Our focus has been and continues to be on preventing hospitalizations and deaths,” Hogan said.

The governor also called up 1,000 members of the Maryland National Guard to help with the state’s pandemic response, including by supporting COVID-19 testing sites and helping transport patients.

Hogan said the actions are meant to “keep our hospitals from overflowing, keep our kids in school and keep Maryland open for business.”

The governor also announced the state would open an additional 20 testing sites outside hospitals around the state “to divert people away from visiting hospital emergency rooms just to get COVID tests.”

Maryland, as with the nation, is in the midst of a staggering winter surge in which average cases per day total nearly 13,000 as of Tuesday. That rolling seven-day average — a record for the pandemic entering its third calendar year — is now nearly twice as high as just a week ago and nearly five times higher than the same time one year ago.

And the number of hospitalizations, which Hogan said last month could reach 2,000, hit a record 3,057 patients Tuesday. Prior to this surge, the number of total hospitalizations had never reached 2,000 statewide.

“Out hospitals are struggling to deal with the numbers of sick people coming to them,” said Dr. Ted Delbridge, executive director at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

The current influx of patients is overwhelming hospitals around the state. As of Monday, more than 600 patients around the state were waiting for a bed, Delbridge said.

Nearly all emergency rooms are requesting patients be diverted to other hospitals because of lack of space.

“Of course that is not possible when every other hospital emergency department is also requesting no new patients,” Delbridge said.

The pressure is unlikely to be relieved soon.

The governor said the number of patients could soon reach 5,000. “The truth is the next four to six weeks will be the most challenging time of the entire pandemic,” he said.

Hogan’s new order, however, does not impose any mandates on businesses but called on residents and businesses to voluntarily return to universal mask use and other measures.

“Everyone got a little complacent, I think maybe thought that we were starting to get back to normal,” Hogan said. “With this new surge of omicron, it’s important for Marylanders to get back to using common sense and doing the things that kept us safe before: avoiding crowds, keeping your distance, washing your hands and yes, wearing the damn masks.”

On Monday, Hogan issued an order that requires mask use in state buildings. The governor, however, eschewed imposing statewide mask mandates in his new order.

“It sometimes has the opposite effect,” Hogan said. “I’m not sure that the people who are refusing to wear a mask are going to wear one any way. We don’t have the ability to enforce it. We’re strongly encouraging people to wear the damn mask but we don’t need a mandate to force businesses to do that. We’re encouraging them to do so.”

On Monday, the Baltimore County Council extended that jurisdiction’s mask mandate a month joining a number of other central Maryland and suburban DC jurisdictions in requiring masks in any public indoor setting.

The emergency declaration is the first to be in place at a state level in more than four months.

The limited order gives Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader the power to regulate hospital personnel, bed space and supplies. The authorization allows the state to expedite the transfer of patients between hospitals and allows the department to establish alternate care facilities.

Additionally, the order allows the department to recognize health care licenses issued in other states that are not covered by current reciprocity agreements. Others with inactive licenses could resume work without reinstating their expired licenses. Graduate nurses are authorized to provide full nursing services at any health care facility in Maryland.

The order also allows the department to regulate elective procedures and issue stricter directives to monitor and control outbreaks in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

A second order augments emergency medical crews.

Under Maryland law, the governor can declare a state of emergency for a 30-day period. That order is renewable without limit unless countermanded by a majority of the General Assembly.

Many Republicans were fiercely critical of the length of Hogan’s emergency orders. When the order ended, a number of top Democrats called on Hogan to reinstitute it, saying that the state was not yet out of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Anne Arundel County Executive Stuart Pittman praised Hogan for his actions.

“I feel like we have an ally in the governor in this battle,” Pittman said.

The first-term Democratic executive issued an order last week mandating masks inside all buildings open to the public. He called it “a very, very small intrusion into people’s lives.”

“We know that masks slow the spread,” Pittman said. “I just think it’s unfortunate that this issue has been politicized.”

The mask order is good for seven days unless extended by five of the seven members of the Anne Arundel County Council. Such an authorization would require one Republican to join the Democratic majority when the panel meets Friday.

“I hope that some of the Republicans on the county council who have in the past not been very supportive of our actions on fighting this pandemic will see this as an important measure, a reasonable measure,” Pittman said.