Maryland health officials reported 6,869 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, breaking the previous record of coronavirus infections set Tuesday, while hospitalizations eclipsed a state-instituted threshold that requires hospitals to implement their emergency pandemic plans immediately.
The state has recorded more than 17,000 cases over the past three days, levels not seen before throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in Maryland.
The sharp increase in cases is a telltale of the highly transmittable omicron variant and infections, said Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
“We’re seeing a pretty precipitous increase in cases day over day and, unfortunately, all signs are that that will continue in the near term,” Sehgal said. “That’s not to say that we’ll be breaking records every day but that trajectory will continue to trend upwards until we do something about that.”
With the holidays imminent, Sehgal encouraged the use of N95 face masks, physical distancing and testing before gathering — all of which reduce the risk of virus spread immediately. Advanced filtering face masks can be purchased at stores like Home Depot and Target, among other places.
“I don’t think any of us are advocating for sitting out this holiday, particularly if you’re vaccinated and boosted” Sehgal said. “But the reality is the minority of Americans are vaccinated and boosted. And so it is more important now than ever to take reasonable precautions while we know the risk of encountering someone with or contracting COVID-19 is extremely high.”
Some 1,505 patients were hospitalized Thursday with COVID-19, 40 more than a day earlier, pushing state hospitals closer to capacity, according to the health department. Of those patients, 305 required intensive care. Health officials reported 17 children are hospitalized because of the virus, including five in the ICU.
Gov. Larry Hogan, himself having recently contracted coronavirus despite being fully vaccinated and receiving his booster shot, said earlier this week that hospitals were to implement their pandemic plans as soon as the state broached 1,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Under his directive, Maryland hospitals are to optimize bed capacity and bring in additional staffed beds, redeploy or alter staffing models, reduce non-urgent and elective surgical procedures, transfer patients to alternative care sites and convert spaces used for administrative or other functions to be utilized for clinical care, Hogan’s office said in a news release.
Appearing over video along with some of his coronavirus advisers Tuesday, the Republican governor offered a bleak outlook for the winter, with COVID-19 hospitalizations projected to reach record levels. State health experts said more than 70% of coronavirus patients were unvaccinated and that their concerns were compounded because the virus surge was expected to peak around the same time as the flu.
In a statement released by his office Thursday, Hogan said the state had been preparing for this scenario with hospitals.
“With unvaccinated patients driving the strain on our health care system, we urge Marylanders to do your part by getting your vaccine or booster shot as soon as you can,” Hogan’s statement read. “We will continue to closely monitor this surge, and take additional actions as needed.”
As of 10:45 a.m. Thursday, 19 of 24 hospital emergency departments in the Baltimore metropolitan area requested that ambulances bring no patients in need of urgent care because they are “experiencing a temporary overwhelming overload” potentially hindering care of critically sick people, according to the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which oversees all EMS providers in the state.
Dr. Ted Delbridge, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, said Tuesday that coronavirus patients accounted for almost 20% of hospital patients statewide.
And while unvaccinated people account for more hospitalizations, Sehgal, the public health professor, said more vaccinated patients are ending up in hospitals nationwide. He said this underscores the urgency of receiving a booster shot, particularly for those who are elderly or who have existing health conditions.
“If you’re an elderly person who hasn’t received a third dose of [a vaccine] you’re still at risk of pretty severe consequences,” Sehgal said.
Maryland reported almost twice as many test results Thursday as Wednesday. The health department reported some 67,142 tests returned over the last 24 hours, and that the testing positivity rate climbed to 12.8%.
That’s the highest the rate, which measures the average number of nasal swabs returned positive over the last week, has been since May 29, 2020 — a time when the state still was standing up its testing infrastructure barely two months into the pandemic.
State health officials say the staggering case counts included tests that were returned positive over the more than two weeks the department couldn’t update the state’s coronavirus data dashboard following a Dec. 4 cybersecurity breach.
Breaking News Alerts
The state health department won’t be reporting new COVID-19 data Friday or Saturday for the Christmas holiday.
As of Thursday, about 70% of Marylanders have completed their first course of vaccinations either by receiving two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or the single-shot inoculation made by Johnson & Johnson, according to the health department. Roughly 1.48 million booster shots have been administered in Maryland — enough for about 24% of the state’s population.
Sehgal described the increase in cases as startling given the amount of residents who need to be vaccinated and boosted, including children younger than 5, for whom a COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been federally approved.
“Even though Maryland is doing fairly well, it’s still only seven in 10 Marylanders that are fully vaccinated and even fewer of them that are boosted. For the three in 10 Maryland residents that are not fully vaccinated today, omicron infection is likely to be very significant,” Sehgal said. “It’s no longer a matter of if those unvaccinated neighbors will be exposed; it’s a matter of when.”
Maryland’s December COVID-19 surge
The Maryland Department of Health resumed reporting some coronavirus metrics Monday after being unable to update its dashboard in the wake of a cyberattack detected Dec. 4. Here’s the latest on what we know and what we don’t.
What we know
- New daily cases: 6,869 (new single-day record)
- Seven-day average testing positivity rate: 12.8%
- Hospitalizations: 1,505 (+40)
What we don’t
- New deaths
- Geographic data on where new cases are occurring in Maryland
- Demographic data such as age, gender and race on who is testing positive