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For Harford, a year of turmoil over COVID restrictions ends with its hospitals declaring a state of disaster

Spring? The cancellation of proms led some to plan alternate parties to evade COVID-19 restrictions. Summer? Outrage that unvaccinated band members were required to mask up to march in a Fourth of July parade. Fall? A mask mandate for the reopening of schools drew such unruly protesters that education officials suspended a meeting and moved future ones online.

And now, in the winter of Harford County’s discontented year, its largest hospital was the first in the state to self-declare a disaster. Prompted by a spike in COVID patients, the designation issued Christmas Eve allows the University of Maryland Medical System’s Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air to reduce nonurgent surgeries and shift staffing, patients and resources. The county’s other hospital, Harford Memorial Hospital, followed suit Tuesday.

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“This was a crisis that was foreseeable,” said Dr. David Bishai, the Harford health officer who was fired in October amid pushback over coronavirus restrictions. “We in public health saw this coming.”

Bishai, an emergency room doctor and adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said “political grandstanding” contributed to the swell of COVID patients.

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The county council recently voted against mandating masks at its meetings, for example, and in September wrote Upper Chesapeake officials to ask that they reconsider a vaccination mandate for employees.

Harford’s rate of infection has generally been at or above the statewide average over the course of the pandemic. But the roughly 57% of its population that has received a second vaccine dose falls below the statewide 65%.

A long line of people wait in rainy conditions Thursday, hoping to get a COVID-19 test kit at the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library.
A long line of people wait in rainy conditions Thursday, hoping to get a COVID-19 test kit at the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

To be sure, the state as a whole is contending with a surge of cases as the delta and newer omicron variants spread amid increased travel and gatherings over the holidays. Four other hospitals in the state moved in the days after Christmas to “crisis” and “contingency” standards of care. And in a scene duplicated elsewhere, Harford residents are scrounging for COVID tests.

“You should be able to just pop up here and, maybe, I don’t know, [wait] 15 minutes or 40 minutes in line,” said Virginia Davis, 65, standing in line Wednesday at ExpressCare in Forest Hill. Instead, the retired nurse said she faced hours of waiting.

But experts say the resistance some in Harford have shown to mask mandates, vaccinations and other COVID mitigation measures, along with its medical facilities having small capacities to begin with, have contributed to its hospitals reaching critical levels before those in other parts of the state.

“They have no one to blame but themselves,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Willful choices,” such as not getting vaccinated or refusing to wear masks indoors, “amount to saying, ‘We don’t care about our hospitals,’” he said.

“It’s not a hurricane hitting your hospitals,” Adalja said. “They have chosen to put their hospitals in a disaster.”

The University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center is shown Tuesday in Bel Air.
The University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center is shown Tuesday in Bel Air. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The increase in COVID admissions at the Harford hospitals has been dramatic. While declining to release figures, Upper Chesapeake officials say in the past month, the number of COVID patients at the Bel Air hospital jumped 733%.

Despite that, Harford County officials are staying the course. Unlike in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman rejected reinstating an indoor mask mandate.

“I don’t rule anything out,” said Glassman, a Republican who is running for Maryland comptroller. “I look at these numbers every day.

“But right now, I’m not going to do anything further. I will wait and speak with the state health department and the local health department.”

The state health department and the University of Maryland Medical System planned to open a site Friday at Upper Chesapeake in Bel Air to offer daily, walk-in testing.

The county health department, led by Marcy Austin since Bishai’s termination, offers the same guidance as it has through much of the pandemic — get vaccinated and boosted, socially distance and wear masks.

“Those steps can have a strong impact on reducing the direction of COVID cases in the weeks and months to come,” Austin said in an email.

Mary Boblits of Bel Air started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19.
Mary Boblits of Bel Air started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19. (PHOTO COURTESY OF Breanna Kuhlmann/BKLP)

Bel Air resident Jared DeCoste led an unsuccessful campaign to keep Bishai at the health department. He believes Glassman and other officials need to do more.

“This ‘wait and see’ approach just means you’re going to wait and see bad things happen,” said DeCoste, a materials chemist and mask expert who has been tracking COVID metrics on his Facebook page.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said of the trending statistics.

DeCoste said residents have some control over their health, such as switching to N95 masks and avoiding crowds. But what if his children get injured while playing or something serious happens to his parents?

“The concern of the hospitals being overrun is huge,” he said. “To be in a first-world country and to have your hospital saying it’s just about to completely explode — that’s a problem.”

Boxes of COVID-19 test kits wait to be distributed Thursday at the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library.
Boxes of COVID-19 test kits wait to be distributed Thursday at the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The county is largely led by Republican officeholders, with many who reject mandates in favor of personal choice.

Republican state Del. Lauren Arikan, who has joined rallies against the mask mandate for schools, said even if remaining unvaccinated may increase the risk of being hospitalized — 75% of COVID patients are unvaccinated — “that’s kind of the beauty of freedom.

“We can’t make people do things to their bodies that they don’t want to do,” she said.

Arikan said people need to keep themselves safe. The hospital crisis, she said, is due to smaller capacities and preexisting staffing shortages that in part stem from some employees quitting when the vaccine mandate took effect.

Preschool teacher Shekinah Hollingsworth of Havre de Grace, who is running for delegate as a Republican to represent District 34A, said she is not convinced the hospital problems are all due to COVID.

“It’s flu season anyway,” she said. “It’s simply that time of year.”

Hollingsworth, whose platform includes ending COVID restrictions, said she thinks “people are kind of done with living in fear of the virus.

“People ultimately want to go back to a normal way of living,” said Hollingsworth, who said she had COVID in August.

County Councilman Andre Johnson, the lone Democrat on the seven-member body, said that while everyone is experiencing “COVID fatigue,” leaders need to keep the situation from worsening.

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“Things have the potential of getting out of hand once again, and no one, no one wants to go to shutdowns,” Johnson said.

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He said a request to revisit the issue of requiring masks in council chambers was “shot down” by another member.

“I just don’t know if members of county government have an appetite to show leadership like that,” he said. “It’s necessary for the public … to do what neighboring counties are doing as far as mandates and things of that nature.”

Johnson, who has been vaccinated and boosted, said he’ll continue to wear masks.

Stephanie McKaughan, a Darlington resident, said the rejection of a mask mandate at council meetings means members hear largely from those who oppose such restrictions or are comfortable being indoors without protection.

“I don’t feel safe going,” said McKaughan, who chairs the Dublin/Darlington Community Advisory Board. “The meetings are incredibly crowded.”

Bishai said state officials should take the lead, particularly as COVID numbers soar, and give some political cover to local officials.

“They leave it to the counties and cities to take the heat,” he said. “They leave them out to dry, while the state drags their heels.”

Bishai is among those who believes the anti-mask and anti-vaccination activists in the county have an outsized influence in Harford County.

“The voices we hear are not the mainstream ones,” he said. “It’s not a wild county.”

Signs supporting former Harford County health officer Dr. David Bishai outside the county council chambers on Nov. 2, 2021.
Signs supporting former Harford County health officer Dr. David Bishai outside the county council chambers on Nov. 2, 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Jansen Robinson, who chairs the Edgewood Community Advisory Board, agrees.

“The vast majority of the people that I have communicated with are supportive of our health measures,” said Robinson, a former school board president. “Those folks who are anti-masking are in the minority.”

Harford schools are set to reopen Monday after the holidays. Other jurisdictions have modified their calendars — Prince George’s County will go online until Jan. 14, and Baltimore City will delay reopening for two days to test staff for COVID.

Robinson said the rising COVID numbers should not close schools. ”If the data reveals that we need to do something different, then we will do something different,” he said. “Right now, we are trying to do everything we possibly can to keep kids safe and keep them in school.”

The turmoil this and last year over COVID measures in Harford isn’t unique. One public health expert sees the crisis as a reflection of how Americans have lost their ability to work together.

“Each twist and turn is a referendum on a foe,” said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the deBeaumont Foundation, a Bethesda-based public health organization. “We can’t even get through the politicization of the pandemic to have a thoughtful conversation about risk mitigation and maintaining a high quality of life while staying as safe as we can.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around, he said, including the federal government for not communicating effectively and leaving people confused and frustrated, Castrucci said.

”People are erring on the side of the economy,” he said, adding that both dominant political parties have signaled that health comes secondary to such actions as repaying a student loan or returning to work sooner.

Staff shortages, particularly among the medical ranks, have many straining to keep up amid increased demand.

EMS technicians and paramedics are “worn out by the constant call volume,” said Bill Dousa, vice president of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association. Some work 36-hour shifts, he said, and find it hard to meet reporting requirements and restock ambulances between calls.

Meanwhile, some say they feel they’re largely on their own in navigating COVID, much as they have been in earlier phases of the pandemic. Instead of shortages of masks, hand sanitizer or vaccines, now there is a scramble for tests.

A Facebook group, Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19, that started in February to help people find vaccine appointments is now filled with tips on how to land a COVID test.

“I’ve seen a lack of leadership in terms of at the federal level, at the state level, county level when it comes to managing us out of the pandemic,” said Mary Boblits of Bel Air, who runs the group.

She tries to keep the group on a factual, helpful course.

“I try really hard to keep politics out of it,” Boblits said.

For Davis, 65, the retired nurse who had come to ExpressCare for a test, and who remembers “being lined up” with her fellow second graders for polio shots, the situation is like nothing she’s ever experienced.

“The entire lack of test kits, the fear, the need,” Davis said.

She wanted to be tested after a possible exposure to COVID from an “idiot” who, despite feeling under the weather, came to a recent lunch she attended.

At ExpressCare, the line grew to about 50 people by the time it opened at 9 a.m. Still, Davis was determined to get tested to protect others.

Jacob Miller arrived at 5 a.m. Wednesday and was first in line. It was his second attempt, after finding the line wrapped around the building when he arrived at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday.

His younger brother, a Bel Air High School student, recently tested positive, Miller said. Despite keeping his distance from him, he thought it best to check his status.

“I wanted to get tested before I see my girlfriend,” said Miller, who lives in Texas. “It would make her mom feel a whole lot more comfortable if I get tested before I saw her daughter.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller and Baltimore Sun Media editor Maria Morales and photographer Matt Button contributed to this article.

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