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UM Upper Chesapeake Health declares hospital disaster in Harford County as COVID cases hit new peak

University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health declared a hospital disaster Friday after rising COVID cases hit peak levels at its two Harford County hospitals in Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

The system put in place new crisis protocols at UM Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air to treat rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus patients.

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In the past month, the number of COVID-19 positive patients has jumped 733% at the Bel Air Hospital and 458% at that hospital and UM Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace. The system declined to disclose the actual number of cases, saying those numbers shift from hour to hour.

But the numbers hit their highest levels this week since the start of the pandemic, with at least three quarters of the infected patients unvaccinated, a spokeswoman said. The demand for care has depleted staffing and other resources, the system said.

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The system’s response comes after a nearly three-week period in which the state has added nearly 46,000 COVID-19 cases as the new, more contagious omicron variant has spread.

Putting the new “Crisis Standards of Care” protocols in place “is not a decision we made lightly and is one that was made after exhausting all other avenues to address issues that are challenging our operations,” said Dr. Fermin Barrueto, Upper Chesapeake Health’s chief medical officer and senior vice president of medical affairs, in Friday’s announcement.

The Bel Air hospital’s new protocols expand on the emergency pandemic plans that Gov. Larry Hogan required of all hospitals once the state surpassed a threshold of 1,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday. Under the governor’s orders, Maryland hospitals are required to take steps such as altering staffing models, reducing non-urgent and elective surgical procedures, transferring patients to alternative care sites and converting administrative spaces for clinical care.

The state health department reported 1,505 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 Thursday, and officials reported a daily record of 6,869 new COVID-19 cases. The department paused its COVID reporting on Friday and Saturday for the Christmas holiday.

Under its new crisis protocols, the Bel Air hospital may take steps such as cutting back surgery schedules by 20%, which should affect mostly elective cases, shifting outpatient nurses to inpatient units and reducing patient documentation to save time and see more patients.

“We are doing everything in our power to support our teams and recognize the significant burden they have carried for almost two years,” said Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, in the announcement.

Staff at Harford Memorial Hospital are similarly “stretched to near crisis levels,” he said. “We are monitoring that situation very carefully to take the same action if appropriate.”

The University of Maryland Medical System worked with Johns Hopkins Medicine to develop the “Crisis Standard of Care,” using recommendations from the National Academy of Medicine.

Upper Chesapeake Medical Center became the first hospital in the state to formally implement the crisis protocols, though all hospitals in the UMMS systems have activated surge plans, said David Marcozzi, UMMS COVID-19 incident commander and a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Those plans include working to reduce surgical volumes by at least 20%, as directed under Hogan’s order.

“While UM UCH may be the first in Maryland to formally implement [crisis standards of care], they will not be the last,” he said in the announcement.

Marcy Austin, interim health officer at the Harford County Health Department, said residents can help reduce the burden on the hospitals by getting vaccinated, including boosters, masking and getting tested.

Those steps “can have a profound impact on the trajectory of COVID-19 in the weeks and months to come,” Austin said in the announcement.

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