Maryland launches booster campaign as Hogan touts declining COVID metrics, defers on school mask mandates

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he plans to launch a promotional campaign aiming to persuade more people to get a booster shot against COVID-19, and also relaunch a lottery to reward people who do opt for the extra shot.

And even as Republicans in the House of Delegates sent a letter Tuesday to the state superintendent of schools and the State Board of Education calling for an end to the masking mandate in schools, Hogan did not specifically say he wanted an end to mandatory masking in schools, as is being done in several other states, citing his lack of authority.


The Republican governor, however, touted Maryland’s high vaccination rate compared to other states and dropping cases of COVID-19, numbers that could support such action.

And he insisted boosters are a key method to keep people safe and to relieve still overwhelmed hospitals, where the majority of patients are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.


“We do know protection wanes over time and no one should consider themselves protected if they don’t have a booster shot,” Hogan said.

Cases and hospitalizations have been coming down in Maryland and across the country since hitting their pandemic highs in mid-January, and many health officials believe the surge from the omicron variant will continue to recede into spring.

A big concern, and reason for many masking mandates and other measures, was not only to protect individuals but to provide some relief to overwhelmed hospitals, some of which resorted to crisis standards of care.

Maryland hospitals reported 1,111 people in their beds Tuesday, a drop of more than two-thirds since the peak, when nearly 3,500 were hospitalized a month ago. There were 738 new infections and 42 deaths reported Tuesday.

The statewide positivity rate also has been dropping among those tested for COVID-19 in Maryland, though it remained slightly above 5% Tuesday, a threshold that suggests widespread community transmission. The rate also varies by county.

Mask mandates in schools and retail establishments and elsewhere have been a political flashpoint, with supporters fearing outbreaks in the classroom and elsewhere and opponents saying such measures infringe on personal rights and harm children.

The Democratic governors of Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon announced in recent days they would end school mask mandates sometime in March. Connecticut plans to end its school mandate by the end of February. All four states will allow local school districts to maintain mandates if they choose.

Maryland’s House Republicans argued that cloth masks were ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID-19; that N95 and KN95 masks have not been properly tested in children; and that children’s emotional and cognitive development was at risk from the masks.


“The damage that covering faces does to the development of children is something that we will not fully grasp for many years to come,” the letter read. “However, there are early indications that masking negatively impacts cognitive development as well as emotional wellbeing — neither of which should be sacrificed for a mitigation measure that provides no true health benefit for those children.”

The letter goes on to call for an end to the face coverings in public schools by eliminating the “off ramps” put in the current order.

Hogan, however, cited lawsuits in Virginia filed against the new governor, Glenn Youngkin, when he lifted school mask mandates on his first day. Hogan said he didn’t have the authority to order the state school board to lift its mandate but would instead make a recommendation. He didn’t spell out any specifics of that recommendation.

The change may take an act of the legislature, which approved a statewide school mask mandate in January after a vote from the state school board in December. The measure was intended to last through the school year but allowed students to go without masks if spread of the virus in their county was moderate or if vaccination rates were above 80% in the school or the surrounding community.

The state vaccination rate among kids has lagged that of adults.

Hogan touted the adult rate “milestone” Tuesday. He reported 95% of those 18 and older had at least one shot.


About 82% of children aged 12 to 17 in the state overall have received at least one shot, but only about 42% of those aged 5 to 11 have gotten at least one since they became eligible in November, according to state data. Rates in each county vary.

Some public health officials have said that they supported mandates in schools to ensure a high compliance rate with the safety measure. But more recently many have said they also support ending the mandates when conditions improved.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a Johns Hopkins pulmonologist who treats COVID-19 patients, said he could support lifting mandates if conditions such as low community transmission were met and if schools had the ability to change course if there are outbreaks.

“I don’t mind as long as the schools have the flexibility to react in real time, if there is say a super-spreading event,“ he said. “Mandates never take the place of active engagement and apply in real time.”

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Since vaccines, and now boosters, have been widely available, Hogan has pushed for more shots. But booster shots have lagged.

“As we achieve another incredible vaccine milestone, I want to thank all the health care heroes we honor this week who have made this possible,” Hogan said in a statement. “While we will continue to work to reach that last 5% of adults, we are just as focused on getting more Marylanders boosted to maximize protection against the virus and its variants.”


State data shows the state has given out about nearly 2.1 million booster shots, or enough for about a third of the population.

Public health officials say boosters can help stave off a case of COVID-19. With many breakthrough infections after vaccinations, the boosters also help prevent severe infections requiring hospitalization.

Hogan’s new campaign will involve calls and text messages about the availability of booster shots at hundreds of locations around the state. With the demand for testing dropping since the holidays, Hogan said some of the locations at hospitals would turn their focus to the boosters.

He also said the lottery would run for 12 weeks, beginning with a $500,000 prize through a random drawing Feb. 15. Everyone boosted in the state at any time is automatically entered in the drawing.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.