With cases of the coronavirus spiking in several East Coast states, Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday that Maryland would aim to accelerate its COVID-19 vaccine prioritization schedule and authorize everyone 16 and older to preregister for appointments at mass vaccination sites.
The governor said while rising infection and positivity rates raises alarm, the trends don’t correlate to states’ lifting capacity limits at bars, restaurants, gyms and other indoor spaces. Maryland’s mask mandate remains intact, he added, which has helped businesses stay open while keeping people safe.
“We meet almost every day with our team of experts and epidemiologists, and we’re following the science. We don’t think it had anything to do with reopening,” Hogan said, pointing to surges in New York and New England, which have stricter restrictions in place. “Our indications are these variants are much more contagious.”
But public health experts and other Maryland leaders said coronavirus variants only partially explained the rising case count.
“The variants still need somewhere to go,” said Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist and president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health-minded charitable group. “As you reopen, you create more pathways for viral transmission.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, pushed back in a tweet, saying: “For @GovLarryHogan to say that Maryland’s increase in cases has nothing to do with the lifting restrictions goes against all the science we have been following. We can’t play games with people’s lives. Restrictions work.”
Hogan said the state is engaged in a race between vaccines and the variants, many of which already have been detected in Maryland. Young people have been driving an uptick in cases here, he said, echoing statements made earlier this week by the state’s top health official, who said the growth in cases was small and not accompanied by a surge in hospital admissions or deaths.
Hogan encouraged Marylanders to continue wearing masks and stay socially distant. He did not clamp down on reopening measures, or cite a threshold for when the state could need to take such action. His last such action was March 12, when he lifted most capacity restrictions at businesses in the state.
On Thursday, the state added 1,584 new coronavirus infections, bringing Maryland’s case count to 412,928 throughout the pandemic, according to the state health department. Thursday’s figure represents the most new cases reported since Jan. 31.
Maryland’s testing positivity rate crept up to 5.51%, 0.21 percentage points higher than the day before. The rate, which measures the average number of tests returned positive over the last week, has increased more than two percentage points since hitting a 2021 low of 3.24% on March 3. It’s still considerably below the 9.47% peak recorded Jan. 3 during a winter surge of the virus.
The World Health Organization recommends governments reach positivity rates below 5% for two consecutive weeks before lifting restrictions.
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and public health professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said the governor should consider “policy changes around what fully vaccinated people can do versus when vaccination status is not verified,” rather than reinstate restrictions that could hurt the economy.
“When we look across the country, we are at record levels of travel. People are going to high risk settings,” such as bars and restaurants, before they’re fully vaccinated, she said. It’s okay for places to be at capacity, so long as all the occupants are fully vaccinated, which may require vaccination verification, Wen said.
Hogan said that out-of-state travel was discouraged, but encouraged Marylanders who need vaccines to head to the Eastern Shore for a new walk-up line opening Friday at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center mass vaccination site in Salisbury, then tack on a weekend in Ocean City with stops for Thrasher’s french fries and Easter brunch.
The new, more contagious coronavirus variants have been circulating in the United States since this winter, with one projected to become the dominant strain in America. They not only may spread more easily, but also may resist vaccines and other therapeutics at higher rates than other strains.
As of Thursday, there have been 651 COVID-19 infections in Maryland caused by coronavirus variants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Almost 94% — 611 infections — were caused by the mutation of the coronavirus first detected in the United Kingdom, which was discovered in Maryland in January. The strain initially identified in South Africa has caused 39 infections, while the P.1 mutation, first traced to Brazil, has caused one COVID-19 case here, CDC data shows.
Hogan said genomic sequencing tests in Maryland laboratories identified variations of the virus spreading in New York and California, as well as a second mutation traced to Brazil.
Some of the most recent variants are cause for concern, as similar mutations have cropped up independently of each other, said Andy Pekosz, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “What that’s telling us is that the virus is finding ways to get better at infecting us.”
“It may be a one in a million chance that a virus mutates to make itself better at infecting people,” Pekosz said. “But by not controlling the case numbers, we’re essentially letting the virus roll the dice 900,000 times ... If we keep the case numbers low, then the virus has less chance to mutate.”
To keep the variants at bay, Hogan emphasized the state’s work in targeting “hard-to-reach” and vulnerable populations for vaccinations.
While the state will now accept preregistration from anyone 16 and older, Phase 3 of the vaccination schedule is not currently scheduled to begin until April 27. That means that adults age 60 and above, educators, some essential employees, health care workers and those with some medical conditions will be prioritized for time slots.
Hogan’s office said those who preregister can now select their top two preferred sites.
“We will likely be able to make announcements in the days ahead regarding further acceleration of vaccine eligibility phases,” Hogan said.
Hogan said the Salisbury mass vaccination site had seen a decrease in interest, with most of the eligible population there already vaccinated. While the walk-up line opens there Friday and such lines will be added to other sites in the coming weeks, he cautioned that the best way to secure an vaccination was via appointment through covidvax.maryland.gov or by calling 855-634-6829.
“Our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” he said about the mass vaccination sites, adding that the state would eventually close them as they wane in popularity. “The goal is to try to reach people where they are as much as possible.”
To that end, Hogan said the state health department had been working on creating more clinics within close range of most Marylanders to accommodate those without access to transportation. Also, he pressed counties to submit local vaccine equity plans by Monday. So far, Anne Arundel, Caroline, Carroll, Garrett, Howard, Kent, Prince George’s, Frederick, Somerset, St. Mary’s and Wicomico counties have turned theirs in, according to a Maryland Department of Health spokesperson.
Harford County Health Officer David Bishai said the county drafted its equity plan in February, shared it with the Maryland Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities and implemented it. He said there was some confusion about where the plan should be sent and he was ready to get it to the right office, once that direction was made clear.
Bishai said the plan includes roundtable discussions with predominantly Black churches, mobile vaccination clinics and the hiring of community health personnel.
Hogan also said the state health and aging departments would work with local jurisdictions to develop plans that would allow senior centers to safely reopen by the end of April, with public health protocols in place. Vaccination clinics will be held at the centers ahead of their reopening, he said.
The Republican governor formally announced the location of several new state-run vaccination sites, including Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen and The Mall in Columbia in Howard County.
“I would like to thank Gov. Hogan for honoring our request for a mass vaccination site at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen,” Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, said in a statement. “With its access to major transportation routes, this site will help us in the race to get vaccines to everyone in Harford County and the region.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Pamela Wood and James Whitlow contributed to this article.