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As coronavirus spreads, Maryland officials reopen Laurel hospital to prepare for surge of patients

Governor Larry Hogan spoke about the reopening of Laurel Medical Center to help treat coronavirus patients in Prince George’s County.

As deaths from the coronavirus pandemic continue to rise, Maryland officials have reopened a former hospital in Laurel as part of the state’s preparations for a potential surge in infected patients.

At a news conference Wednesday in front of the hospital, Gov. Larry Hogan and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said the addition of 135 beds at the facility — which was operating as an outpatient center — will help put the state “on track” to exceed its goal of adding 6,000 hospital beds throughout Maryland.

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“It is once again going to help us save lives, not just here in Prince George’s County, but throughout the national capital region,” the governor said.

Hogan, a Republican, started a news conference outside the hospital by reciting the latest totals of coronavirus, including 631 confirmed deaths in Maryland. The state reported 14,775 people Wednesday with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

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Alsobrooks noted that 152 of the state’s deaths from the coronavirus have been in Prince George’s County.

“These are not cases. These are people,” said Alsobrooks, a Democrat.

Hogan said turning the former Laurel Regional Hospital, which opened in 1978, back into a full-fledged hospital was an idea his team discussed early in the crisis. The hospital, which is in Prince George’s County but close to Anne Arundel and Howard counties, reopened Monday and has admitted about two dozen patients.

“The need today is disproportionately in Prince George’s County," said Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, which owns and manages the Laurel hospital.

Hogan said reopening the Laurel hospital, creating a field hospital at the Baltimore Convention Center, expanding the number of beds at several other hospitals and installing 22 “surge response tents” at hospitals means the state eventually will have 6,700 more hospital beds.

“Hopefully, we’re not going to need to use all of those,” Hogan said.

He suggested that the state’s early and aggressive actions have helped keep the demand from overloading the state’s hospitals.

Hospital capacity is one of the four factors in Hogan’s “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery,” which he said he would announce Friday. The other factors are: expanding availability of testing, increasing the supply of protective equipment for health care workers, and building a robust contract tracing system to track down people who have been exposed to the virus.

The governor said the state has made progress in each of the four areas, but it’s premature to start lifting restrictions.

“We’re currently still on an upward trajectory, rather than a downward trajectory,” he said.

Hogan has received some pressure from critics who want the restrictions lifted and the economy reopened sooner, including from participants in a noisy drive-in protest Saturday in Annapolis. Some Republican lawmakers have asked the governor to consider lifting restrictions on a regional basis, instead of a statewide one.

Hogan has said he wants to test 10,000 people per day — a goal that would be helped by the state’s recent purchase of 500,000 tests from a South Korean company.

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“This 500,000-test capacity is equal to the total amount of testing that has been completed by four of the top five states,” he said.

Since the shipment from South Korea, the governor said that he’s been inundated with requests from other states.

“My phone was lighting up from every governor in America saying how do we get some of those tests?” Hogan said.

He said the tests were for Marylanders first, but he would try to help other states, as well.

A second Korean Air plane with supplies landed Wednesday at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum, though Hogan declined to offer details on the cargo. He said his wife, Yumi Hogan, greeted the plane’s crew.

“I can’t tell you a whole lot about it ... They just brought some additional supplies that will come in handy,” he said.

Hogan said his team has made “great progress” in securing more personal protective equipment, such as surgical masks and respirators. He said shipments are arriving regularly, including some from South Korea.

To improve contact tracing, Hogan said the state signed a contract with a research organization, NORC at the University of Chicago, but did not provide details of the cost or scope of the agreement.

The state plans to have 1,000 contact tracers who will be trained to use databases to track down people who have been exposed to others with the virus.

A new “COVID Link” platform will be used to help facilitate the tracing of 1,000 patients each day.

Earlier Wednesday, Alsobrooks and Suntha spoke to a virtual meeting of state lawmakers.

Alsobrooks said she wanted to warn men ― and in particular, black men ― that some are waiting too long to seek health care when they feel sick.

“Men are waiting much too long to seek medical treatment,” Alsobrooks said. “They are waiting way too late. We are having people dying at home. Please seek treatment sooner.”

Suntha said during the virtual call with lawmakers that he’s seen a “popcorn” effect among the hospital network’s 13 locations.

When the virus first came to Maryland, there was a surge of patients at Anne Arundel County’s Baltimore Washington Medical Center, Suntha told lawmakers. Now, he said, the surge of patients is in Prince George’s.

“We’ve described a popcorn effect. Not every community has experienced the surge at the same time or severity,” Suntha said. “We’ve been able to allocate resources to where the surge is most prominent.”

He said when a hospital begins to see a surge, officials can move patients to other sites in the UMMS network, such as facilities in Baltimore.

“Citizens of Prince George’s County are well cared for,” said Suntha, adding that the Laurel facility is “a huge asset.”

Suntha said Maryland officials directed newly acquired federal resources to the location.

“The first 35 ventilators that the state got through their allocation ... went to the Laurel campus,” he added.

UMMS converted the former Laurel Regional Hospital to an outpatient medical center after acquiring it in 2017.

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The Laurel Medical Center is staffed by nearly 400 contracted health care workers, in addition to UMMS staff, officials said.

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Suntha said the UMMS network is not currently overwhelmed. State data show about 1,400 hospital beds are being used by COVID-19 patients.

“We are thinking about what next week looks like and what two weeks look like from here," Suntha said. "That’s where our angst increases.”

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