Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday that reinstating a statewide mask mandate is not on the table.
But with coronavirus infections and hospitalizations on the rise again, some schools, local governments and businesses are requiring Marylanders to mask up again — leading to a fractured set of rules and confusion about when and where masks should be worn.
The increase in infections is driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus, a dangerous and more contagious version of the virus. As of Tuesday, 309 people were being treated for the virus in Maryland hospitals, a number that has roughly tripled in the past month.
Still, the Republican governor said he thinks Maryland is in a good position because of its relatively high vaccination rate compared to other states. Hogan and others have repeatedly characterized the current state of the pandemic as a race between vaccinations and variants like delta.
“The variant is more contagious, it’s spreading rapidly and we’re telling those people that haven’t gotten vaccinated that they need to,” Hogan said Tuesday at an event in Baltimore. “If you want to stay out of the hospital and you want to avoid dying, then you should get vaccinated.”
Currently, more than 50% of the cases of coronavirus that are sequenced at Maryland labs are coming back as the delta variant, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
If you want to stay out of the hospital and you want to avoid dying, then you should get vaccinated.— Gov. Larry Hogan
Hogan said he had a “lengthy” meeting Monday with his coronavirus response team to evaluate the current state of the pandemic.
An increasing number of health experts and government officials have determined that the increase in cases and hospitalizations mean that vaccinations aren’t sufficient to battle the coronavirus, and are recommending a return to masking as an additional weapon against the virus.
Starting Thursday, anyone visiting government buildings in the City of Annapolis or Anne Arundel County — including libraries and senior centers — must wear masks.
But in neighboring Howard County, County Executive Calvin Ball said this week that there’s no need for a mask rule in government buildings, at least not now. The county does continue to urge people who are not vaccinated to wear masks inside county buildings.
Officials in Baltimore City and Baltimore County are continuing to confer about what, if any, further steps are needed to battle the delta variant, including mask-wearing.
The Montgomery County Council will meet Thursday as the county Board of Health to consider a rule that would trigger a requirement for wearing masks in indoor public spaces if coronavirus transmission rates exceed certain thresholds.
The Montgomery rule, if approved, would fall in line with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is urging people to wear masks indoors in places where the virus is surging, defined as at least 50 new cases per 100,000 residents in the prior week.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman cited that CDC guidance when he reimposed the mask mandate in county-owned buildings. He said that while people vaccinated against the coronavirus are largely protected from serious illness, hospitalization and death, they still might pass the delta variant to others.
“We need the masks to prevent the delta variant from using healthy, vaccinated people as carriers,” Pittman, a Democrat, said Monday.
Military installations also are following the CDC guidance, with some Maryland facilities now requiring masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, based on being in areas of “substantial” transmission. Masks are now required indoors at Fort George G. Meade and the Naval Academy, both in Anne Arundel County.
The CDC also urges universal masking in schools for children and adults, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated. Several public school districts have announced mask requirements this summer, including Baltimore County, Baltimore City and Howard County. Anne Arundel County’s school officials still are consulting with health experts.
Even if masks aren’t required, public health experts say people might consider wearing masks again in public places voluntarily.
“I have returned to wearing a mask indoors in public, even though I am fully vaccinated,” said Caitlin M. Rivers, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Rivers said that while much of Maryland is defined still as being in “moderate” transmission, she decided not to wait until transmission gets worse.
“The vaccines continue to hold up well against the virus, including the delta variant, but they aren’t perfect,” Rivers said. “Cases are rising in Maryland, and masking is an easy way to reduce the risk that I’ll bring the virus home to my kids.”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director the American Public Health Association, said that while Hogan appears to be following the CDC’s decision tree, he’d offer different advice to the governor if asked. It’s too confusing to decide masking rules on a county-by-county basis, he said.
He said he would encourage Hogan to team up with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam “and tell the public that we are moving back to universal masking as a preventive tool for hopefully a short period of time, because cases are rising.”
(Bowser reinstated the District of Columbia’s indoor mask requirement this past weekend.)
Benjamin, who is a former Maryland state health secretary, said that while the three jurisdictions have strong vaccination rates, a masking order would help lessen the severity of this newest wave of infections. After all, he noted, even vaccinated people can become carriers of the virus “for brief periods of time” even though they’re unlikely to feel ill.
“A very strong recommendation might get better compliance and less resentment,” he said. “It would also be viewed as less political.”
Close to 60% of Maryland’s eligible population is fully immunized, the latest state figures show, including more than 77.6% of the state’s adult population. But swaths of the population remain unvaccinated not only due to vaccine skepticism and hesitancy, but also due to medical conditions, allergies, age and religious beliefs.
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa also hopes the governor might take a different path regarding masks.
“I think he should consider the CDC guidance,” Dzirasa said in an interview. “It sounds like he’s leaving it up to the local jurisdictions to make that call. But I think what’s tough about that is that in each jurisdiction, there are differing levels of authority.”
Breaking News Alerts
For example, she said, in some places the county executive could make a decision that diverges from the advice of the health officer or commissioner.
On Tuesday, the CDC listed at least seven Maryland jurisdictions — Anne Arundel, Cecil, Charles, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Wicomico and Worcester counties — as having “substantial” transmission.
Dorchester County was listed as having “high” transmission. According to the CDC’s latest guidance, residents in counties with substantial or high transmission rates are encouraged to wear masks indoors, as well as those with weakened immune systems or medical conditions regardless of where they live.
The rest of state was deemed as having “moderate” transmission, but public health experts say that even highly vaccinated areas will not be immune from “breakthrough” cases — infections in those who are fully vaccinated — until more people are inoculated against the coronavirus.
Dzirasa said the combination of the highly-contagious variant and some people still unable or unwilling to get vaccinated — including children younger than 12 who aren’t eligible yet — is worrisome.
“Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power for those that can’t get vaccinated, to keep those that are most vulnerable safe and healthy?” she asked.
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Lilly Price and Heather Mongilio contributed to this article.