ANNAPOLIS — Maryland is moving into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday the state is now planning long term for surges.
Hogan said the plan, dubbed COVID Ready Maryland, will “maximize all of the available tools and treatments for preventing severe illness and keeping people from being hospitalized and to maintain an ongoing state of readiness over the long term so that we are well prepared to respond to any emerging future variants or any potential waves or surges.”
Hogan’s five-pillar plan calls for streamlined, one-stop testing to treatment sites, increasing vaccinations and booster rates, and more public outreach.
State Health Department officials also announced they will be ready to administer the first doses of vaccines for children under 6 should they be approved next week.
The state has roughly 90 sites where a patient can receive a rapid test. If the results are positive for the virus, the patient can obtain a medical evaluation and go home with antiviral medication.
Hogan said the state hopes to create up to 50 additional sites partnering with private organizations. Those sites could be opened quickly in the event of a surge of the virus.
The state will also ramp up efforts to get more people vaccinated and to get eligible patients booster shots.
“No one should consider themselves fully protected unless you have gotten a booster shot,” Hogan said.
Under federal rules, anyone 5 years of age or older is eligible for one booster dose. Anyone 50 and over is eligible for a second dose.
People who have been vaccinated can now use a new state website that will tell them if they are up-to-date with the vaccine.
State officials are also planning for the approval of two long-awaited vaccines for young children. Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan said officials expect federal approval as early as next week.
“These COVID-19 vaccines, just like other COVID vaccines that we have for other age groups, will help protect out youngest Marylanders against severe disease, hospitalizations and death,” said Chan.
There are nearly 360,000 children in Maryland who would be eligible for the vaccines, some of which require three doses.
The state has ordered more than 65,000 initial doses. Those doses could be distributed to pediatricians and other sites as early as June 20, Chan said.
But adoption of the vaccine for children has been slower than for adults. Chan said only about 50% of children 5-17 have been vaccinated with one dose. About 43% are fully vaccinated with two doses. Chan said Maryland ranks sixth in the country for vaccination rates among that age group.
About 10% have received a booster dose.
Cases in the Northeast and Midwest, driven by an omicron sub-variant, are waning. In Maryland, daily reported cases have declined since mid-May.
The rolling seven-day average of new cases Wednesday was 1.9% lower than the previous week. Experts believe that number is lower than the true community spread, largely because results from widely available home tests are often not reported.
Hospitalizations are also declining. The 465 total hospitalizations reported Wednesday is a number that is about 6% lower than a week ago. Hospitalizations are a key measurement used by state and federal health officials to gauge the severity and spread of the coronavirus.
Public health experts warn that the pandemic is not over.
“We need to be ready for future variants or surges, should they occur,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Bloomberg School Center for Health Security. “We can hope that they won’t but we need to prepare as if they will occur, including what we’ve seen the last couple of years with fall and winter surges. We hope they won’t keep happening but we need to prepare as if they will.”
Inglesby is a former adviser on COVID to Hogan. He recently was a member of a team that advised President Joseph Biden.
It is not clear if or when COVID-19 will move to a more endemic phase or if it will one day be as predictable as seasonal flu.
“We don’t know the answer to that,” said Inglesby, adding that the delta and omicron waves hit with little advance warning.
“For people who make predictions beyond a few months, I think that’s pretty difficult to do,” he said.