Maryland is launching 10 new COVID-19 testings sites at hospitals as a surge in the virus has led to hours-long lines at testing centers throughout the state, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday.
Hogan spoke at the University of Maryland’s Laurel Medical Center, a former hospital that houses one of the new testing operations. The facility reopened more than 100 hospital beds in the early months of the pandemic in spring 2020 to treat coronavirus patients.
The sites will be “fully operational” by the end of next week and will operate seven days a week, offering testing without appointments for walk-up and drive-up patients. In addition to Laurel Medical Center, testing sites will include:
- UM Charles Regional Medical Center in La Plata
- UM Capital Region Medical Center in Largo
- Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham
- Meritus Health in Hagerstown
- Frederick Health in Frederick
- Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore
- University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore
- MedStar St. Mary’s in Leonardtown
- Northwest Hospital in Randallstown
Hogan said an 11th site will be set up at Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore in conjunction with the federal government and will be aided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Hogan said he hopes this will help divert people just looking to get a COVID test away from emergency rooms, which will ease the burden on hospitals and healthcare workers who have been strained by the latest surge in cases.
“We are already getting great encouraging reports that emergency room traffic for testing has dropped dramatically as a result,” Hogan said.
The governor offered University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health in Bel Air as an example, saying the hospital already experienced a 72% drop in emergency room visits since opening a testing site outside the medical center last week.
As the omicron variant of the virus has spread rapidly through Maryland, residents have struggled to find tests to confirm whether or not they’re infected. As fast as local governments and testing sites have gotten rapid, at-home tests, they’ve been handed out. They’re flying off the shelves of drugstores, too.
Public and private testing locations that offer more sensitive polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests have been inundated. Many PCR testing sites shut down or reduced their hours over the summer and fall, as the pandemic response shifted away from testing and toward vaccinations.
Local governments have started ramping their testing operations back up, including Baltimore County, which plans to open a site in White Marsh next week, and Baltimore City, which opened a large-scale, drive-up site near Pimlico Race Course this week.
Howard County officials have set up a dedicated testing site for government and school employees and announced a mobile testing site for the public at a fire station in Elkridge. Carroll County opened an appointment-only, drive-through testing site Thursday at the county’s agriculture center in Westminster.
Maryland’s testing positivity rate has shot up to nearly 30% in recent weeks, meaning that nearly three in 10 reported coronavirus test results are positive. Maryland hospitals are treating a record 3,172 patients for the coronavirus — a patient load that could reach 5,000 in the coming weeks, according to state health officials.
Maryland reported 12,735 more COVID cases Thursday and that 54 more people died from the virus.
Hogan said the more contagious omicron now accounts for 90% of all lab-confirmed cases as well as hospitalizations.
Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, said the additional testing sites will relieve the “disproportionate burden” on hospital workers, who are dealing with people seeking tests, patients with COVID-19 and patients with other illnesses and injuries.
“Those people who are coming in search of testing and in search of understanding whether they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, these testing facilities will be an incredible resource right now in the fight against COVID-19,” Suntha said.
Suntha said the hospital system has gone from 200 patients hospitalized with COVID about a month ago to over 800 now.
Suntha said that 75% of those admitted are unvaccinated and that fewer than 5% of hospitalized patients have been vaccinated and boosted.
“Our hospitals in the state of Maryland are under incredible stress,” he said. “We are seeing a rapid rise in patients arriving at the hospital with COVID-19.”
The strain is evident at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, too.
“Everyone is under stress,” Dr. John Chessare, the hospital’s president and CEO, said in a video message on the hospital’s website. “Our people are working many hours to do the right thing and help people. But there are queues, there are lines, and there is waiting that’s happening that may not be [typical].”
Chessare said the governor’s executive orders and temporary state of emergency will help ease the burden on staff. Already, the number of people showing up in the emergency department for COVID-19 testing has dropped off some.
GBMC was treating 88 patients for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, including 13 in the labor and delivery and post-partum units and another 12 patients in the intensive care unit.
All of GBMC’s coronavirus patients in intensive care are not vaccinated. And, while some of the other coronavirus patients are fully immunized, they are, by and large, “frail elders or people with chronic disease,” Chessare said.
Chessare expressed concern that some people would continue to avoid or delay vaccination, thinking that most healthy adults won’t get very sick with the coronavirus.
“I would ask those people to think again,” he said. “Even if the probability that you getting sick with the virus is [not] high, think about the people who you could pass the virus to. Think about your loved ones.”
Both the governor and Suntha continued to encourage those who are unvaccinated or eligible for a booster to get the shots. The two also said it is imperative for people who are symptomatic — like with a sore throat or cold-like symptoms — to isolate and get tested.
“If you are found to be positive, things like quarantining and mask wearing can reduce the spread,” Suntha said. “It’s about understanding who is positive so we can reduce the risk of spread.”
Hogan emphasized that the state has an “unlimited” amount of PCR COVID tests and that the state has secured and is working to distribute 1 million rapid tests. He also said that an additional half a million rapid tests have been secured and will be arriving with the next week. The governor said he continues to push federal officials to make rapid tests more accessible because it is a “really good screening tool.”
Hogan, who is fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, contracted COVID-19 in December. He said he was glad to be “fully back to work” after having to isolate in the governor’s mansion in Annapolis.
“My wife had me on lockdown,” he said. “I didn’t come out of the room for 10 days, and luckily, she dropped some food outside the door.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.