At the start of 2022, 22 months into the pandemic, more Marylanders are hospitalized for COVID-19 than ever before.
State health officials logged 2,746 COVID-19 hospitalizations Monday, an increase of nearly 200 people from the day before, according to the latest figures.
By the end of the day, about 300 more patients had been added to the count, pushing the total above 3,000, said Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association. That data will not be posted on the state’s coronavirus dashboard until Tuesday morning.
By the association’s count, nine of the state’s 44 acute care hospitals have entered crisis mode, including the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson and Frederick Health Hospital, which adopted the emergency protocols Monday.
“Maryland hospitals have been sounding the alarm for the past month — noting that the situation would soon become dire. That has happened,” Atlas said in an email, adding that most hospitals had reached full capacity. “This means that any patient who is not in need of immediate, urgent, emergency care, may have to wait until there is staffing and/or a bed available to treat them.”
The latest patient surge has crushed hospital staffs, depleted by what some have described as a nearly two-year marathon and strained further by more health care workers themselves testing positive and entering quarantine and isolation periods. In emergency departments, the hours of waiting have gone into double digits for some patients.
And the burden is likely to continue to grow. Another 14,251 people tested positive for the virus, according to the latest state data, pushing the state’s 22-month total to 751,450.
In the past month alone, more than 162,000 people have tested positive, according to state data. That works out to about one in every 25 Marylanders.
The positive tests reported Monday pushed the state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate to 26.87%, just a hair below its early pandemic peak of 26.88% in March 2020, when tests were difficult to find and only those demonstrably sick could access them.
Health experts believe the very high positivity rates mean some cases are going undetected and therefore unreported. Many people also are using at-home rapid tests and may not be reporting positive cases found by those.
The increases have come fast, with hospitalizations up more than 250% since the beginning of December. The positivity rate hovered a month ago just above 5%, which has been considered an international benchmark for when the virus spread becomes uncontrolled.
It’s happened in tandem with the rise of the new omicron variant, which the World Health Organization identified as a “variant of concern” just after Thanksgiving. It since has become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for nearly 60% of all cases analyzed for genomic sequencing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, the delta variant continues to circulate, making up about 40% of U.S. cases, according to the latest CDC data.
The rising cases and hospitalizations have translated to a growing number of COVID-related deaths. Officials reported 26 more deaths Monday, pushing the toll to 11,658 since the pandemic swept into the state in March 2020.
The rising surveillance metrics point to indifference and fatigue among Marylanders, some of whom may be averse to changing their behaviors at this point in the pandemic, said Christopher Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor in the department of biology at Loyola University Maryland.
“It’s just really frustrating, because we do have a lot of power in our own hands to slow this spread,” Thompson said. “We’re failing to do the things we know work: wearing masks appropriately, and at the right times; failing to wash hands and socially distance; getting vaccinated and getting tested; and staying home when you feel sick.
“The frustrating part is, we could have this peak now, and have it head down immediately, but we’re not willing to do that.”
On Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his administration would focus on curbing hospitalizations by issuing a mask requirement inside state government buildings, providing paid leave for employees to get booster shots, and granting state agencies more flexibility to institute telework and “hybrid” work policies.
The Republican governor has not implemented a limited public health emergency, called for last week by the Maryland Hospital Association. Such a declaration would provide more protection for health care workers.
Atlas said the move would help hospitals as they shift to crisis-mode standards of care, enabling them to ease some of the burden on medical personnel, including postponing some patients’ surgical procedures, cutting back on documentation for now, and converting physical spaces to other uses as needed.
Over the 10 days, several area hospitals have shifted to the emergency standards, including the Luminis Health’s hospitals in Annapolis and Lanham, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore and University of Maryland’s Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie.
In a statement Monday, Dr. Thomas B. Smyth, president and CEO of St. Joe’s, said staff members, though “exhausted,” continue to provide the highest caliber of clinical care to patients.
State data points to Baltimore City as having the highest case rate per 1,000 people over a 14-day period, with 28.61, followed by Charles (27.78), Prince George’s (25.95), Montgomery (22.82) and St. Mary’s (22.36) counties. Behind St. Mary’s are Dorchester (21.24) Baltimore (19.78) and Howard (19.55) counties.
Allegany, Washington, Wicomico and Somerset counties lead in the total number of COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people ever confirmed, with 179.07, 172.17, 167.69 and 155, respectively.
Several testing centers were closed Monday due to a winter snowstorm that also shuttered area school systems. Icy conditions are expected Tuesday morning. State residents were encouraged to stay home and avoid the roads when possible.