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Maryland secures 500,000 coronavirus tests from South Korea; Hogan’s initiative sparks criticism from Trump

Gov. Larry Hogan announced he has been "quietly working" for several weeks on the project to obtain more kits that he dubbed "Operation Enduring Friendship."

Maryland is getting hundreds of thousands of coronavirus tests from South Korea, enabling the state to greatly ramp up its testing operation, thanks in part to the efforts of the state’s first lady, Yumi Hogan, Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday.

The supplies from LabGenomics, a South Korean company, will enable the state to administer 500,000 tests, according to the Hogan administration. The tests cost the state $9 million — a “worthwhile investment” given how much revenue the state is losing with so many businesses closed, Hogan said.

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In the latest sign of frustration with the Trump administration, Hogan said his team worked to find and buy the tests in the absence of the federal government providing assistance to the states.

“The administration made it clear over and over again they want the states to take the lead and we have to go out and do it ourselves," Hogan said. “So, that’s exactly what we did.”

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Hogan’s move — negotiating directly with a foreign government — drew the ire of Republican President Donald Trump, who has been seeking to defend his administration’s response to the pandemic while arguing the United States has plenty of testing resources.

“The governor of Maryland could’ve called [Vice President] Mike Pence, could’ve saved a lot of money,” Trump said Monday at a news conference while displaying a map of labs in Maryland. “I don’t think he needed to go to South Korea. I think he needed to get a little knowledge.”

Hogan has said Trump is not being “straightforward” when the president claims the country has plenty of tests and the governor said the lack of testing supplies caused him to reach out to South Korea for help.

Speaking during a news conference outside the governor’s mansion in Annapolis, Hogan described an intense, behind-the-scenes effort to secure the tests. He dubbed it “Operation Enduring Friendship.”

The Republican governor started the effort with his Korean-born wife on March 28, when the couple called South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Lee Soo Hyuck.

“We spoke of the special relationship between Maryland an the Republic of Korea and we made a personal plea — in Korean — asking for their assistance," Hogan said.

On the morning of the same day, a Saturday, the state health department had reported just under 1,000 cases of the illness. But that night was when Hogan announced a “tragic” outbreak of COVID-19 at Pleasant View Nursing & Rehabilitation in Carroll County with 66 infections and at least one death. Twenty-six people at Pleasant View have now died.

The Hogans’ first call led to “22 straight days” of negotiations and vetting that involved scientists and agencies in both countries. Hogan said there were “countless calls” in the middle of the night due to the 13-hour time difference between Maryland and South Korea.

“It really was an amazing team effort,” said Hogan, calling the international cooperation “unprecedented.”

The Hogans welcomed a Korean Air Boeing 777 plane Saturday to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport that carried the testing supplies.

Hogan said securing the tests represents “an exponential, game-changing step forward on our large-scale testing initiative.”

The governor praised several high-level state officials who were part of the negotiations, and singled out his wife.

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“Most importantly, I want to thank Maryland’s first lady, my wife, Yumi. She truly is a champion of this Operation Enduring Friendship,” Hogan said.

Hogan administration officials said they decided to keep the developing operation quiet after Massachusetts reported 3 million masks it ordered were impounded in March at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Hogan was joined at his news conference by Hong Seok-in, the director for public diplomacy for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whom Hogan thanked in Korean. A Korean flag was behind Hogan’s podium, alongside U.S. and Maryland flags.

"The state of Maryland owes an incredible debt of gratitude to the people of South Korea,” Hogan said.

MD First Lady, Yumi Hogan, was involved in securing the deal of kits, making calls to the South Korean ambassador.
MD First Lady, Yumi Hogan, was involved in securing the deal of kits, making calls to the South Korean ambassador. (Luke Broadwater)

Hogan, the chairman of the National Governors Association, spoke of the state’s strong relationship with South Korea. He said that in February, he and Yumi Hogan arranged for a reception with America’s governors at the South Korean embassy in Washington.

“It was a special surprise for us when President Moon [Jae-in] appeared on a video screen to recognize our special partnership," Hogan said.

“He said that Korea was so proud of my wife, and that they considered me a 한국 사위, which means a ‘son-in-law’ to the Korean people. I considered it an honor for him to say that, but I had no idea just how much it would truly come to mean these two very long months later.”

The ability to administer 500,000 tests represents a dramatic increase in Maryland’s testing capabilities. State health officials have reported the results of 71,397 tests (including 13,684 positives) among a population of about 6 million.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the Korean tests would go to priority areas first, such as nursing homes, drive-thru testing centers and health care sites.

Maryland officials said Monday the state confirmed 854 more cases of the coronavirus over the previous 24 hours, bringing the state to 13,684 confirmed cases. At least 516 Marylanders have died from COVID-19, and another 66 deaths are suspected to have been caused by the disease.

“It will enable us to identify those who are sick and those who have virus," Hogan said. “So, it can help us isolate and do our contact tracing and keep people safe all across the state and help us with reopening.”

The governor noted, however, that it will take some time to match the tests with necessary supplies and lab capacity and roll them out.

“They don’t have everything that’s needed. It’s a very complex set of things that goes into the testing,” he said. “You need the lab capability, you need the swabs, you need the reagents, and they all have to kind of work together. ... It’s going to take a while to ramp up all of the things that we need to utilize all of the tests.”

Maryland secured 40,000 tests last week and sent $2.5 million to the University of Maryland, Baltimore, to help fund a project to use robotics to expand testing there — potentially to 20,000 tests per day.

But those steps weren’t enough, Hogan said.

Hogan said expanding testing capability is the most critical part of plans to start relaxing restrictions and reopening businesses and the economy. Later this week, Hogan plans to offer more details about the criteria for beginning a gradual reopening process.

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The other “pillars” of Hogan’s reopening strategy are: expanding hospital capacity to meet a surge of patients, increasing the supply of personal protective equipment, and building the contact tracing operation to track down people exposed to patients with COVID-19.

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The governor said the state will continue to seek more tests and is researching different types of tests.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s not the end of it, though,” he said.

The announcement of state’s move to buy tests in a foreign country was followed promptly by Trump’s criticism of Hogan, which also came after Hogan rejected some of Trump’s claims about testing.

On Sunday, Hogan countered messages from Trump and said a lack of supplies for coronavirus tests remains “probably the No. 1 problem in America." On CNN, Hogan said Trump’s claim that states have enough tests to reopen “is just absolutely false."

“It’s not accurate to say there’s plenty of testing out there and the governors should just get it done," he said. “That’s just not being straightforward.”

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence sought to soften the Trump administration’s message to governors amid growing clamor from the states for a national strategy to help secure in-demand supplies, such as testing swabs and chemical reagents. Trump said Sunday that he could use the Defense Production Act to compel one company to manufacture swabs.

“When it comes to testing, we’re here to help,” Pence told governors during a video conference from the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Associated Press obtained audio of the call.

Pence said the administration sent an email Monday to officials in each state detailing current testing capacity by state.

But Hogan said much of the unused lab machinery listed for Maryland in the report was in federal labs that the state does not have access to.

“We already knew where the labs were,” Hogan said.

Pence agreed to open federal labs to help states.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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