Maryland’s outbreak of the new coronavirus is on pace to peak around July 4, a state Health Department official told members of the Maryland elections board, although outside health experts cautioned against predictions involving a certain date because a lot is unknown or could change.
Webster Ye, director of the Health Department’s office of governmental affairs, delivered the sobering timeline to board members Wednesday as they weighed decisions about the state’s upcoming elections.
Ye said Maryland was in the “middle of the pack” with its infection rate compared with other states.
“New York state, for example, is way above, and states like Nebraska are way below," Ye said. “We’re expecting this to be peaking probably around Fourth of July, so that’s probably when it gets the worst.”
“If that happens,” Ye continued, "that means we will have done our job because we have slowed down hospital capacity demands. If we get a sudden spike in the next two weeks, that means we probably haven’t done our jobs because we’re going to be overwhelmed.”
In a radio interview Friday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan dismissed Ye’s statements.
“The health department disputed that,” Hogan said. “That guy who works for the health department I think just made up his own personal opinion to some group and it got quoted in the paper. He’s not in any of our discussions or our meetings. ... It’s something he never expressed to anyone else.”
The governor said there are various models showing different lengths of the pandemic in Maryland, but no one is sure what is the best prediction.
“Nobody has the exact time,” Hogan said. “There are numerous models that show four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks or longer. The federal government doesn’t have an answer. We don’t have an answer.”
Ye’s office is the health department’s liaison to the General Assembly and the federal government. According to the Maryland Manual, the state archives’ guide to government, the office of governmental affairs works with state delegates and senators on legislation the health department needs and analyzes the impact of other bills on the agency.
Ye told members of the election board that the estimate he provided was based upon internal modeling by the Health Department, as well as modeling from Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical System.
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore City health commissioner and George Washington University professor, said she was “surprised” anyone would make a prediction of the disease’s peak spread when the number of coronavirus infections is unknown.
A lack of widespread testing in the U.S. has officials estimating where the virus trajectory is headed.
“Not all patients with symptoms are even being tested. Many people are self-isolating at home,” Wen said. “And there are likely many more, even tens of thousands more, who have mild or no symptoms and don’t know they have COVID-19.”
She cautioned the models Ye cited could be wrong.
“What data we do have shows cases are accelerating now. We need to be preparing right now,” she said.
Ye described the state’s effort to “flatten the curve” by slowing the number of people infected early in the virus’ spread. That helps the health care system absorb the cases. It’s done through aggressive measures, such as those taken by Hogan, to close schools and businesses to keep people apart. Public health officials believe the virus is largely spread through the air during person-to-person contact.
Dr. Thomas Ingelsby, director of the John Hopkins’ Center for Health Security, said the number of cases will depend on the public’s response to those measures.
“The timing and height of the peak will depend on the effectiveness of social distancing measures and decisions and actions around them in the time ahead,” he said.
The virus could be impacted by other factors. Some public health officials have said they don’t know if the virus will slow in warmer months and come back with a second wave in the fall or later, or if it will peak and decline.
Because it’s a new coronavirus, no one has immunity to it. A vaccine to prevent infection is in the works but not expected to be available for 12 to 18 months.
Bob Atlas, CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, echoed the uncertainty from this pandemic.
“This event is unprecedented, so all forecasts have a range of uncertainty as to time and numbers,” he said.
“Our hospitals are preparing for an influx of patients, taking into consideration the variables that go into the forecasts,” he said. “We would, again, stress how important it is for everyone to comply with social distancing and other safety measures. That way, whenever the peak arrives, it’s much more likely our hospitals will be able to care for everyone in need.”
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Ye offered several more statistics as board members discussed the risk of opening polling places during an April 28 special general election and a June 2 presidential primary.
The state has just over 200,000 masks in its supply and isn’t getting many more from federal officials, Ye told the group.
Maryland hospitals have just over 2,000 available hospital beds, 396 of which are in intensive-care units, Ye also said. About 1,000 ventilators are available, he told the board.
After hearing the figures, election board members moved forward with a draft plan to block in-person voting in June and switch to mail-in ballots.
Many public officials and health experts have been reluctant to estimate how long the coronavirus outbreak will last.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump drew the ire of public health leaders after he suggested he wanted to “have the country opened up” by Easter, less than three weeks away. Trump said he feared the restrictions being implemented across the country would do irreparable damage to the economy.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.