Maryland health officials have confirmed the state’s first three cases of the novel coronavirus, the respiratory disease that has sickened at least 100,000 across the globe and killed more than 3,000.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday night that the state’s Public Health Laboratory in East Baltimore confirmed the cases, which are all in Montgomery County. Two are a married couple in their 70s and the third is an unrelated woman in her 50s who had traveled with them. They are all in isolation in their homes.
Officials did not say where they had traveled, citing privacy reasons, but said they returned Feb. 20. Health officials had been in phone contact with people returning from several heavily affected countries, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the state Tuesday that the three needed to be tested. All three had symptoms, which were not severe and are now abating, officials said.
A day later they were instructed to go to an unidentified hospital emergency room where medical staff in protective equipment collected samples for testing. The results were returned Thursday afternoon by the state lab.
The three people in Maryland who tested positive for COVID-19 were exposed to the virus on an international cruise that was “not affiliated with Baltimore,” Dr. Travis Gayles, the chief health officer for Montgomery County, said Friday.
A team of health officials is now trying to develop a “ring of contacts” for these people since they returned to Maryland to track whether and how the virus may have spread.
“Our administration’s highest priority is keeping our residents safe, and all of the actions we are taking will allow all levels of government to better collaborate and respond to this threat in a coordinated and effective manner,” Hogan said during a nighttime news conference in Annapolis at which he also declared a state of emergency in Maryland.
The move authorizes state health and emergency management officials to “ramp up coordination” among state and local agencies. The state’s emergency operations center also has been activated to support the response to the coronavirus.
“This is not a reason to panic," Hogan said. "Marylanders should go to work or go to school as they normally do.”
He said residents should be prepared and stay informed.
The patients appear to be recovering and did not have “anything more than minimal contact with school-aged children,” Gayles said.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker Adrienne A. Jones in a joint statement also sought to strike a similar tone.
“We want to thank the governor and the Department of Health for their quick response and focus on these cases, and are ready to work together to confront this issue and make sure to align the best public response in a calm and collected manner," they said. "We have the best health professionals in the world and have complete confidence in the ability of the medical community and the state and local governments to work together to contain the effects of the COVID-19 virus.”
Officials had been warning that cases were likely in the state and have been actively preparing and monitoring.
Forty-one people had been tested in the state as of Thursday morning, with 26 already reported to be negative. The rest were pending, according to the state Department of Health, which is now doing tests in its own lab rather than sending samples to the CDC in Atlanta. That has allowed for results in a day compared with two to three days.
Nationally, more than 220 people have been infected with COVID-19 and 12 people have died, all but one in Washington state.
Hogan requested millions of dollars in extra funds this week from state lawmakers for preparedness, and lawmakers have moved quickly to approve the money. He asked the General Assembly to add $10 million to the fiscal 2020 budget in legislation that was introduced Thursday.
The measure included $250,000 for communication; $5.75 million for contractual services; $3.5 million for supplies and materials; and $500,000 grants, subsidies and contributions. Further details were not provided. The money would be available immediately upon passage.
Hogan also requested permission to tap the state’s $50 million rainy day fund to pay for the coronavirus response, if needed.
“It’s just to allow some flexibility so we can be prepared,” said David Brinkley, Hogan’s budget secretary.
Fran Phillips, the state’s deputy health secretary, told senators the state’s level of testing, monitoring and communication is “simply not sustainable without additional resources.”
Lawmakers moved swiftly on the request, holding a public hearing Thursday and voting session that lasted less than 10 minutes in the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee. They unanimously approved the bill.
Under the provision, a General Assembly committee could review the governor’s plans before the money is spent, and the governor also would be required to send a report to the legislature after the fact as well.
In Baltimore, a City Council panel held a hearing Thursday evening to review the measures taken to prepare for an outbreak.
“We’re here today to not scare the public,” said Brandon Scott, the council president. “But we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about preparedness. This is simply about making sure we are prepared for something that is very serious.”
Representatives from the city health department, emergency management office, emergency services agencies and schools outlined efforts to ensure that there is a system in place if there are a lot of cases here.
The council wanted assurance that medical centers are being prepped to screen patients, emergency responders are prepared to take people to any city hospital, and the hospitals able to accept, isolate and care for the infected. They also wanted to be sure there are sufficient supplies on hand including personal protective equipment for medical workers.
Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the city’s health commissioner, said planning and coordination among all the agencies continues and for now the most important effort involves messaging.
She urged the public to call their health care provider, rather than going to the emergency room, if they are concerned they have been exposed to the coronavirus and have symptoms such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath.
The testing criteria recently was expanded somewhat to include people who have not traveled or come in contact with someone infected but are hospitalized with serious symptoms not otherwise explained. Dzirasa said the criteria continue to evolve as more people become infected across the country.
The messaging also is aimed at businesses, which officials want to plan for telecommuting and allowing workers to stay home when they are sick.
Generally, Dzirasa also emphasized that the public needs to take steps to protect themselves and the vulnerable people in the community, such as seniors and those with underlying health conditions, by washing hands, covering coughs and staying home when sick — the same measures that protect people from the flu, which is widespread now.
“We’re ramping up messaging,” Dzirasa said. “There is no vaccine and we want to slow the spreading of the illness and make sure we’re directing resources where they are needed.”
Already, health officials advised a private all-girls Jewish school in Baltimore to send three students home Wednesday because they may have come in indirect contact with someone in New York who tested positive for COVID-19 in Westchester County, New York.
Leaders of Bnos Yisroel school in the Cross Country neighborhood notified parents by email about the contact, made during a gathering in New York. The school contacted city and state health agencies, which advised the school to send the girls home and disinfect the school as a precaution.
The girls will be monitored and won’t return to school until they are cleared by health officials, though the school remains open.
Also in Baltimore, the Women of the World (WOW) Festival has been canceled amid “growing concerns and uncertainty” about the coronavirus. The event was expected to bring more than 1,000 people from around the country to the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor this weekend. The festival’s website says it is part of a “global movement that celebrates women and girls as a force for positive change."
Breaking News Alerts
Organizers said they were putting safety first.
Meanwhile, a Pikesville hotel canceled the reservation of the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team over fears of the coronavirus, the Maccabees coach said. A student at Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish university in New York City, has tested positive for the virus.
Coach Elliot Steinmetz said the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel canceled the reservation, forcing the team to book rooms at a different hotel for its appearance Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Johns Hopkins University.
Concerns about coronavirus forced Hopkins officials late Thursday night to ban fans from attending the first and second rounds at Goldfarb Gymnasium on Friday and Saturday.
“In light of Maryland’s recently confirmed cases of COVID-19, and based on CDC guidance for large gatherings, we have determined that it is prudent to hold this tournament without spectators,” the university announced. “We are not making any determination about other JHU events at this time; while we await further guidance from public health authorities, we will be assessing large events on a case-by-case basis. We regret any inconvenience to the families and fans of the players.”
T. Rowe Price Group also said Thursday that it has postponed an institutional client event scheduled for the end of March in New York. The event is expected to be rescheduled, and in the meantime, the Baltimore-based investment management firm plans to increase use of webinars and conference calls to continue serving clients.
Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Lorraine Mirabella, McKenna Oxenden and Edward Lee and the Associated Press contributed to this article.