Young people in Maryland are driving an uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, the acting state health secretary said Monday, but they are not causing a surge in COVID-19 deaths.
During a virtual Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup meeting, Dennis R. Schrader told lawmakers that the state health department would continue monitoring the rise in infections and severe illness. But he did not specify the threshold the metrics would need to reach before it prompted the state to reimpose or further relax virus-related restrictions.
“We don’t want to overreact,” said Schrader, adding that the rate of infection and deaths among older adults remained low. “What we’re looking at is the acceleration ... this is a fairly flat curve in terms of growth.”
Schrader’s comments came just before a committee of senators voted to send the acting secretary’s nomination to become the permanent secretary to the full Senate for a vote. His nomination had been pending for nearly three months, as senators required him to appear before them weekly to answer questions about the vaccine rollout.
His response to the growing case count, positivity rate and hospitalization tally also followed Rochelle Walensky, executive director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, voicing concerns earlier in the morning about the “impending doom” that could accompany a rising tide of infections.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” she said Monday during a virtual White House briefing. “But right now, I’m scared.”
The surge could be fueled by a number of new, more contagious COVID-19 variants that have been circulating as well as the loosening of restrictions in most states, some of which also eliminated mask mandates. Walensky said some governors acted prematurely.
Schrader said Maryland’s continued mask and social distancing requirements have helped reopen the economy while also keeping case and hospitalization counts in check. He reiterated his priority of vaccinating people 65 and older as a way of maintaining progress.
“We’re in a race to vaccinate the older population as fast as we can,” Schrader said. “That’s the key to this.”
On Monday, Maryland reported more than 1,000 new cases for the sixth consecutive day. The increased cases remain well below the peak in early January, when the state reported a daily peak of more than 3,000 cases following the holiday season.
The total number of people hospitalized reached 1,039 Monday — surpassing 1,000 for the first time since Feb. 20. Nine more people died, pushing the death toll to 8,075.
Meanwhile, the statewide testing positivity rate rose to 4.99% on Sunday. The rate, which measures the percentage of positive tests over the past seven days, has now increased for three straight days.
Fifteen jurisdictions — including Baltimore City (5.04%) and Anne Arundel (6.25%), Baltimore (5.51%), Harford (8.54%), Howard (5.04%) and Prince George’s (5.34%) — are now above the state average.
State Sen. Clarence Lam, a physician who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties, said he worried that the state’s vaccination campaign would not outpace the growing case count.
The Democrat also asked Schrader for specifics on Dr. Robert Redfield’s role in state government. Redfield, who served as head of the CDC under former Republican President Donald Trump, drew the ire of state and local leaders last week when he voiced support of an unproven theory about the coronavirus accidentally escaping from a lab in China, which the World Health Organization previously described as highly unlikely.
Lam, along with Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, and others, called for Redfield to walk away from his post as an unpaid adviser to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan if he did not apologize or recant his comments. Redfield and Hogan’s office were unswayed.
Schrader said he has been in regular contact with Redfield, specifically about the spread of the variants, vaccination strategies and disease surveillance. He did not comment specifically on Redfield’s “lab leak” statement, but said he served as a contributing voice to the state’s system.
“Obviously his voice is one, Dr. [Jinlene] Chan and her team are still key to this,” Schrader said of the state’s acting deputy health secretary for public health. “But he has been weighing in on these issues.”
With the General Assembly session entering its final weeks, the Senate’s Executive Nominations Committee gave Schrader a final grilling Monday night.
Ferguson, who started the weekly meetings when vaccinations were running at a slow pace and it was nearly impossible to get appointments, said the state’s efforts have improved.
”I think we’ve seen significant progress and I think it’s been meaningful progress from where we started,” said Ferguson.
Several senators on the nominations committee praised Schrader for being accessible and willing to answer their questions. But not all were satisfied.
Lam noted that Schrader and the state health department have been frustratingly inconsistent with their answers and messaging. Lam ticked through several examples, among them: First the state said a universal registration website was not necessary, then it ultimately created one; first the state said expanding eligibility was due to a push from the federal government, then it said the reason was to improve equitable access.
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Lam was the sole committee vote against Schrader’s nomination. Asked to explain his vote, he said: “We don’t have enough time for me to explain my vote. … My thoughts are pretty clear.”
A vote on Schrader in the full Senate has not yet been scheduled, but his odds of confirmation are strong given the overwhelming committee vote.
Schrader has made it further than last time he was nominated as health secretary in 2017. When Schrader’s nomination stalled in the Senate, Hogan withdrew Schrader’s name — only to reappoint him after the legislative session ended, setting off a legal and political dispute.
Hogan ended up moving Schrader to a role as deputy health secretary. The reason for the Senate dragging its feet on Schrader’s nomination in 2017 has never been made fully clear. But there was a dispute between Schrader and the Senate president at the time, Thomas V. Mike Miller, with Miller accusing Schrader of blocking a Prince George’s County hospital from being approved to offer open-heart surgery.
This time around, senators’ skepticism was based almost entirely on the in-progress effort to vaccinate Marylanders.
”I think the COVID meetings we’ve had the last couple months, he’s been accessible and cooperative and the fact we’ve been there to push him has improved things,” said Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat who chairs the nominations committee. “We could always do better, but I think we saw real progress during this period of time.”
As of Monday, more than 1.6 million shots of vaccine had been administered throughout Maryland and 15% of the population is fully vaccinated, though disparities remain between vaccination of whites and Blacks and Latinos. Schrader said the state would see a 50,000-dose increase this week as Johnson & Johnson manufacturers released more product.