There were more patients hospitalized with coronavirus in Maryland Wednesday, 2,046, than at any other point during the pandemic — a tally that triggered a state-instituted threshold requiring hospitals to suspend elective surgeries.
With the 10,873 new COVID-19 infections recorded Wednesday, Maryland broke its record for new cases reported in 24 hours for the fourth time this month and the third time in past week, according to health department data. Almost 48,000 in Maryland, or roughly 1 in every 125 Marylanders, have tested positive for the coronavirus since Dec. 23.
According to public health experts, these figures underscore the gravity of this most recent wave, fueled by the exceptionally contagious omicron variant, that has begun to overwhelm Maryland hospitals and the state’s COVID-19 testing capacity with no signs of relenting.
Dr. Chris Beyrer, a public health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the data was “very concerning” because he sees negative trends converging in Maryland and beyond. One, vaccines are working but not enough people have them. Two, the delta and omicron variants, both more transmissible than early strains, are cocirculating. Three, cold weather and holidays meant more indoor gatherings.
It’s “disturbing” and challenging for health care workers that approximately 75% of people in Maryland hospitals are unvaccinated, Beyrer said.
While the state’s vaccine coverage is better than the national average, less than 71% of Maryland’s total population is fully vaccinated, Beyrer said. Health department data shows about 1.56 million booster shots have been administered in the state, or a little more than one-third of those who are fully vaccinated.
“That’s not enough to hold off the surge of both of these variants,” Beyrer said.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement Wednesday advising residents to get vaccinated and to obtain booster shots, as he said the influx of hospitalizations was driven mostly by unvaccinated patients.
Hogan touted measures his administration put in place in anticipation of the surge. The state’s surge operations center is keeping tabs on hospital bed capacity and maximizing alternative care sites and Hogan committed $100 million for hospitals and nursing homes to address urgent staffing needs, his statement said. “Whatever resources hospital systems have requested, we are providing.”
There were 220 more patients hospitalized Wednesday than the day before, meaning the state crossed the threshold Hogan laid out earlier this month requiring them to postpone elective surgeries and manage their patient census.
Citing more hospitals entering crisis mode, including Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore Wednesday, the Maryland Hospital Association on Tuesday called for Hogan to reinstate a public health emergency. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich reiterated that call at a Wednesday news conference, citing hospitals’ inability to keep up statewide.
The statement from Hogan’s office Wednesday mentioned no such move.
“This is not March of 2020,” Hogan’s statement said. “It’s important to use common sense and take precautions, but we have the tools, resources, and strategies in place to protect ourselves. We are closely monitoring this surge, and will continue to provide updates as additional actions are taken.”
In addition to getting vaccines and booster shots, precautions include wearing high-filtering face masks, especially indoors, and getting tested for COVID-19, according to Beyrer and other public health experts.
Washington and Virginia this week broke daily infection records along with Maryland, as the Mid-Atlantic continues to especially feel the effects of omicron. As such, Beyrer described the return of indoor mask mandates in Baltimore, Baltimore County, Washington and some of its suburbs in Maryland as “very appropriate.”
“This is an extremely infectious respiratory virus,” Beyrer said. “The omicron variant is the most infectious form of COVID we’ve seen.”
Thirty more Marylanders were reported dead from COVID-19 Wednesday, meaning the virus has killed 11,467 in the state throughout the pandemic, according to the health department.
The state’s average testing positivity rate, the mean of nasal swabs returned positive over the last seven days, lurched up to 19.31% — up 1.73 percentage points compared to the day before — and continued climbing toward the peak rate recorded during the pandemic’s nascence in Maryland, health department data show. Health officials reported 73,521 new test results Wednesday.
Hogan’s statement said the state began to distribute 500,000 rapid at-home tests in November in anticipation of a greater testing demand and has since expanded the days and hours of state-run testing sites, while encouraging local health departments to do the same.
Long lines at testing sites persist. Rapid tests are difficult to find as well as too expensive for many. Those made available at libraries or local health departments have been swept up quickly in many cases.
Public health experts have called on the state and federal governments to ramp up testing. Both rapid at-home tests and polymerase chain reaction tests should be more widely available and affordable, Beyrer said.
Hogan said he mobilized the Maryland National Guard to erect “multiple surge testing sites” and set aside $30 million more for schools to enhance testing operations. He called on the federal government to use the Defense Production Act to bolster the country’s supply of tests.
In the meantime, Hogan’s statement said, Maryland will do all it ”can at the state level to further scale up testing operations.”