With the number of people hospitalized from COVID-19 exceeding 1,200 in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan said Friday that hospitals now must cut back on some non-COVID procedures to free up beds and workers in anticipation of a continued surge in serious coronavirus infections.
“We are triggering a new round of actions for Maryland hospitals, including making available all staffed bed capacity and reducing non-urgent medical surgeries,” he said in a statement. “Based on preliminary data, omicron is believed to be far more transmissible than previous variants, and it is anticipated to rapidly overtake delta as the main driver of new cases.”
Hospitalizations have been climbing, but Hogan did not say how many cases or deaths there have been in the state. That data has not been reported since a Dec. 3 cyberattack at the Maryland Department of Health.
Hospitalizations, now at 1,204, still are updated daily on the state’s dashboard, along with school and nursing home infections. The number of COVID patients in hospital beds is well more than twice its recent low in mid-November and more than 10 times the level from an ebb in early July but not as high as the pandemic peak in January of 1,952.
Health department spokesman Andy Owen said Friday that it would not be responsible to estimate case numbers for the state.
“It is not currently feasible for our systems to provide additional data,” Owen said. “Our IT and cybersecurity teams are working around the clock to restore the full level of reporting, but we do not have a timeline to share right now.”
The state also has begun posting information on an “Incident Update” page on the health department site. It says there continues to be no evidence data was compromised, but to prevent “additional damage and avoid compromising sensitive health information, we are being methodical and deliberate in restoring network systems while prioritizing health and human safety functions.”
Health officials say they are working with state and federal law enforcement on a criminal investigation.
Del. Kirill Reznik, chair of the House of Delegates’ Health and Social Services Subcommittee, considers the information provided by the health department insufficient. He sent a letter Friday to state Health Secretary Dennis Schrader requesting a “detailed update” for the public as soon as possible.
“The entire state remains in the dark with regards to the COVID-19 dashboard, which is of particular importance given the rise of the omicron variant and as we quickly approach the Christmas holiday, when we can anticipate an increase in travel and gatherings that could pose a risk for transmission,” wrote Riznick, adding that some health care providers also had not been paid by the health department.
Beth Blauer, data lead for the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, said during a regular university news briefing Friday that it was a “very dangerous hack” that “hamstrings public policy and decision making” by hospitals and local health departments.
She said the timing couldn’t be worse, considering the national surge in COVID-19 cases that could be further fueled by the fast-spreading omicron variant during the coming holidays.
Blauer did say, however, while the data is particularly lacking in Maryland, there are about three dozen other states that don’t report data daily. Without specific, real-time data, efforts to target groups for vaccination and testing also is made harder.
Many states, she said, are not testing enough as shown by high rates of positive results. The internationally accepted testing positivity threshold is 5%, which Maryland already had exceeded before it stopped reporting test results.
For their part, hospital officials in Maryland said they saw cases begin to tick up weeks ago and made adjustments such as assessing non-COVID patients’ for their most urgent needs, moving patients within their health systems and shifting workers’ duties.
Most patients in the hospitals are not COVID-19 patients, but those with heart attacks, injuries from falls and crashes, and other critical issues. Hospital officials have said many people put off important procedures out of fear or inability to get care the time the last hospitals cut back on non-COVID procedures early in the pandemic, which made health conditions worse for some.
Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said earlier this week that about 15% of about 8,250 hospital beds were occupied by COVID patients — enough to render the facilities 93% full. He also said staff is below pre-pandemic levels, as fatigued nurses and other workers burn out and quit or take other positions.
“Hospitals have and continue to do everything within their power to work to stem this latest COVID-19 surge,” Atlas said Friday. “They are already doing many of the actions noted by Gov. Hogan and will continue to stretch to support their communities as best they can.”
Atlas said about two-thirds of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, with the majority, but not all, of the rest vaccinated but with underlying health conditions.
Atlas, Hogan and others urged the public to get vaccinated or boosted against COVID-19, which has shown good protection against severe illness from the more transmissible omicron variant.
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For now, most cases nationally are due to the delta variant. About 3% of cases nationally are due to omicron, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thought that rises to 12% in New York and New Jersey.
Scientists are showing that the omicron variant of the virus is more transmissible, but a big questions remains about whether it is more dangerous, said Dr. Bill Moss, executive director of the Hopkins’ International Vaccine Access Center.
It appeared to cause less severe illness in South Africa where the variant was discovered, but that population is much younger than the U.S. population, and many people there have been infected and afforded some measure of natural protection.
Moss emphasized that even with some decreased efficacy against the omicron variant, the vaccines are still highly effective against severe disease that causes hospitalizations and deaths when people are fully covered with boosters.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be “breakthrough” cases, vaccinated people becoming infected. And those people will continue to pass on the virus to others.
“Boosters are going to be helpful,” he said, “but they are not going to get us out of the surge we are going to see in coming weeks and months with delta and perhaps omicron.”
Moss called for other health measures, such as masking, distancing and testing. Or, he said, “see our health system overwhelmed.”