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Local Maryland governments ramp up COVID-19 testing

Three of the state’s largest jurisdictions are increasing COVID-19 testing as area hospitals and emergency services strain under the weight of a winter surge.

Leaders of Baltimore County, Baltimore and Montgomery County said they are increasing testing within their jurisdictions. Additionally, they’ve ordered hundreds of thousands of rapid test kits to be distributed to the public.

“The bottom line is this: We need to do whatever we can to keep our hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed so that we can keep our kids in school and protect our most vulnerable,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

The state reported an additional 10,256 cases in the last 24 hours. The rolling seven-day average for cases continues to hover near 13,000 per day — a rate of more than 212 cases per 100,000 residents.

On Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced a 30-day state of emergency. Included in that order were measures he said would attempt to ease pressures on hospitals. The state also plans on opening an additional 20 testing sites around the state.

In Baltimore County, Olszewski said the county will open a testing site inside the former Sears department store at White Marsh Mall on Jan. 10. The county is also extending hours at other regional testing locations and considering weekend hours. Testing will be done by appointment only.

Another 100,000 rapid home tests will be distributed to county residents without charge.

Olszewski said emergency departments in the county are full. Only eight staffed intensive care beds remain available within the county.

“We are continuing to see unprecedented numbers of cases as the omicron variant continues to spread exponentially,” said  Olszewski. 

Increased need and cases among medics have forced the use of nontraditional vehicles for medical calls.

“There are times when a fire engine, a brush truck or another unit may show up to your home or wherever you are that you need medical care,” said Baltimore County Fire Chief Joanne Rund. “Those personnel are also trained in emergency medical services. They are not just firefighters. Please know, we will get you help if you need it.”

Ambulances are required to wait, sometimes for hours on end, until hospital staff can bring patients inside emergency rooms. The result often is fewer available emergency medical vehicles.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said the city is expanding vaccination and testing efforts within the city. 

“We know we are seeing long lines and extended waits at all of our testing sites,” Scott said.

The city has opened a new testing site at the former site of Pimlico Middle School on West Northern Parkway.

Scott announced the city has purchased an additional 200,000 at-home rapid tests. Those kits, he said, will be distributed across the city “in the coming weeks.”

Montgomery County, which boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, is reporting over 1,800 cases per 100,000 residents. The staggering amount of community spread comes  after the county reported single-digit cases per 100,000 people during the summer.

“Do the math, if you don’t think being tested doesn’t play a role in this, doesn’t make a difference, think about Montgomery County’s numbers,” said Elrich. “Think about the numbers in more of the rest of the state.”

Elrich called on Gov. Larry Hogan to impose a statewide mask mandate. The Montgomery County Council earlier this week approved an extension of that jurisdiction’s mask requirements through the end of January.

“The focus on mask mandates is not to close business,” Elrich said. “It’s actually to keep businesses open.”

Elrich has also asked the Montgomery County Council, sitting as the county Board of Health, to approve emergency regulations establishing a vaccine passport.

“I believe this will actually help businesses during the surge, not only in easing concerns of patrons but also limiting the potential that someone might become sick and hospitalized and hurt the reputation of that business,” he said.

The proposed regulations, which could go into effect in February, would require proof of vaccination to use indoor recreation and entertainment facilities, restaurants, bars and fitness centers in Montgomery County.

Under the proposal, residents 12 and older would have to provide proof of full vaccination starting Feb. 15. Residents can use either a CDC vaccination card or the Maryland My IR vaccination website.

Children between the ages of 5 and 11 would have to show similar proof of full vaccination on March 1.

The passport would not apply to churches or big-box stores or to people “making quick trips,” such as picking up a takeout restaurant order.

The county also ordered 1 million rapid test kits. Nearly 200,000 of those ordered arrived Tuesday. Another nearly 200,000 will arrive on Thursday.

About half will go to the public school system. The remaining kits in the initial shipments will be distributed to the public.

The county also plans to expand testing sites as early as this weekend.