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‘Wear the damn masks’: Maryland Gov. Hogan sounds alarm as COVID-19 metrics rise, stops short of new restrictions

Hogan cautioned Marylanders against complacency, particularly during holiday family gatherings.

With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations jumping in the state and across the nation, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stern warning to Marylanders to not “let our guard down,” but stopped short of enacting new restrictions.

“The weeks and months ahead will be difficult, and our collective actions will determine whether we can continue safely on the road to recovery and if we can keep Maryland open for business,” the Republican governor said at a news conference Thursday.

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Most of the United States has seen a troubling upward trend, hitting 100,000 new cases in one day for the first time Wednesday. And Maryland is not immune: The state reported 1,198 new cases — its highest daily count since July — and 10 more deaths on Thursday; 588 Marylanders were in the hospital with COVID-19.

Maryland’s hospitalization rate for the disease has more than doubled since the last low in September, and is now at levels last seen in midsummer. The state’s positivity rate surpassed 4% this week for the first time since early August.

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“Our statewide metrics do not yet warrant taking drastic immediate action," Hogan said. “However, the upticks in some of our metrics here and spiking numbers in other states do place us again at a pivotal moment in this fight.”

Hogan cautioned Marylanders against complacency, particularly during holiday family gatherings. While he understood there may be virus “fatigue,” Hogan warned that “our worst time may be over the next couple of months.”

“We should not and we cannot become complacent," he said. “We’ve come too far together to ignore the warnings and to have out-of-control spikes like so much of the country.”

The governor reminded Marylanders that an order to wear masks remains in effect. They are required in public areas for everyone over the age of five. Masks, he said, are “the best way to keep you and your family members safe.”

“I mean, it’s simple. It’s not that hard,” Hogan said. “Just wear the damn masks.”

Hogan said enforcing existing regulations is “more important than adding new ones.” He urged county officials so step up enforcement of regulations such as mask mandates and capacity limits at bars and restaurants.

Dr. David Marcozzi said the virus had taken a personal toll with a friend’s suicide during the pandemic. He paused to collect himself before continuing.

Dr. David Marcozzi, a Hogan health adviser from the University of Maryland Medical System, cautioned the state is facing a tougher road ahead.

“We are entering a period of high risk these next few months, as the virus spreads more easily when we gather indoors together,” said Marcozzi, who is the medical system’s COVID-19 incident commander.

He said holiday gatherings should involve fewer people than usual, and take into consideration where people might be traveling from. Vulnerable individuals should not attend gatherings, he said.

The pandemic has taken an emotional toll that must be recognized, even as we make decisions to prevent our family and friends from spreading the virus, Marcozzi said.

“This virus doesn’t just affect us physically, it affects us mentally,” Marcozzi said. “This has hit me personally, as I’ve lost a friend to suicide in this pandemic.”

Pausing to collect himself, he added: “Let’s make sure we stay connected. Let’s make sure we reach out. Let’s make sure we support each other. And talk to a professional, if helpful.”

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Though Hogan did not enact new restrictions or pull back on allowed activities, some experts say that should be under consideration.

Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner now with George Washington University, said government officials need to look at limiting gatherings, given the “firestorm of COVID-19 occurring all over the country."

“I can understand the desire to keep businesses open as much as possible, but in order to do that, there should be new restrictions on indoor gatherings, since it is informal get-togethers with extended family and friends that’s driving this recent surge," Wen said. “We wouldn’t want to close down bars and restaurants just to have people hold parties in their homes — the key is to limit indoor get-togethers of all kinds right now.”

Maryland is on “a very dangerous path,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Nuzzo said the state should focus on how to get children back in schools safely, but that requires a lower number of new cases.

“Simply adding more of the same tactics that the state has been trying for the last several months is not going to get us where we need to be,” she said. “We need new strategies.”

Nuzzo noted that Maryland school systems are walking back their decisions to bring more children into classrooms, citing increasing case rates.

“The fact that counties in the state are now dialing back on their plans to return students to in-person instruction signifies that our state is in crisis,” Nuzzo said.

Anne Arundel County’s school board voted Wednesday to continue online learning for students through the first semester. The county’s rate of new cases went higher than 15 cases per 100,000 people, a metric that the county set as a reopening standard.

Baltimore County, meanwhile, had hoped to resume full-time, in-person instruction at four schools for students with special needs. But school officials on Wednesday nixed that plan for now, citing a case rate that surpassed 18 cases per 100,000 people.

“Nobody is looking to fill the schools back up with the virus as spread around as it is,” Hogan said.

Hogan said counties are best equipped to make calls on tightening restrictions.

Montgomery County, for example, is weighing whether to tighten restrictions in hopes of curbing spread of the virus. Democratic County Executive Marc Elrich has proposed limiting gatherings to 25 people and allowing only 25% capacity at restaurants, gyms, stores, religious facilities, galleries and museums. The council was supposed to consider the measure Thursday, but deferred action on it.

Allegany County in Western Maryland is among the counties with the most significant spikes, and the governor said the state is working with the county’s health department on a new testing center at the county fairgrounds.

“Allegany County was one of the ones who didn’t want any restrictions. Nobody wanted to wear masks,” Hogan said. “Now, they’re meeting about actions they might want to take in Allegany County and they’re reaching out to us for help.”

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The county has seen the highest cases per capita in the past two weeks of any jurisdiction in the state by far. The county saw 4.53 cases per 1,000 residents in the past 14 days, with the next highest county, Dorchester, at 3.26 cases per 1,000 residents. Allegany is home to Frostburg State University, which briefly switched last week to online-only classes.

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Hogan said his team is watching data closely in case renewed statewide restrictions are needed.

“Right now, enforcing the existing laws that people aren’t following is more important than adding new ones,” Hogan said.

He called on local health officials and law enforcement to “step up” and focus on making sure the restrictions are followed.

“We’ve heard, you know, anecdotally, lots of stories about people no longer following the rules, not wearing masks, going over capacity ... just kind of thinking everything’s back to normal,” the governor said.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said the governor’s remarks should serve as “a wake-up call.”

“We need to resume the personal practices our residents embraced this spring to slow the spread of this virus and keep one another safe," said Ball, a Democrat, in a statement.

In Harford County, where the rate of new cases has jumped 82% in the past week, Republican County Executive Barry Glassman said he’s not looking at enacting new restrictions. Throughout the pandemic, counties have been allowed to have local restrictions that exceed state rules.

“There’s no doubt there is some fatigue out there, that’s why we keeping trying to hammer the mask, hand-washing and social distancing,” Glassman said. “The more we can just keep people not to let their guard down, it’ll help to some extent.”

The question of how to handle rising case rates is playing out across the nation. Daily new confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. have surged 45% over the past two weeks, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Deaths are up 15%. New infections are increasing in nearly every state.

However, Maryland’s positivity rate — a measure of the proportion of tests that come back positive — remains below 5%. The state calculated a seven-day positivity rate at 4.21% Thursday, while Johns Hopkins had the state’s positivity rate at 3.32%. The state and Hopkins use different formulas, with Hopkins using the number of new infections out of all tests taken.

Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Ben Leonard and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Wayne Carter and Ana Faguy and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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