As the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to sweep across Maryland, the state plans to hand out 20 million of the often hard-to-find N95 and KN95 masks, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday.
Speaking outside a hospital in Easton where a testing site is being set up, Hogan stressed that wearing a well-fitted, high-quality mask is key component to slowing the spread of the virus. But he stopped short of restoring a statewide requirement to wear a mask indoors.
“Next to getting vaccinated and getting a booster shot, wearing a mask is one of the best mitigation strategies that we have, and KN95 and N95 masks provide additional infection protection, compared to cloth and general-use face masks,” the Republican governor said.
Those type of masks have been difficult to find in retail stores and the websites that sell them have been overwhelmed with orders, leading to delays in fulfilling and shipping orders.
The state has nearly 6.2 million residents.
The state will distribute the masks through “multiple channels,” Hogan said, including at state-run testing and vaccination sites, through local health departments and through community partners, such as the NAACP.
The state’s vaccine equity task force, which has been setting up vaccination clinics across the state, will be involved in the effort to distribute the masks to those who need them. Masks also will be sent to nursing homes and state agencies.
“We want to make it even easier for Marylanders to have that extra layer of protection,” said Hogan, who wore a KN95 mask as he toured a testing site under construction in Easton and greeted local officials. He removed his mask to speak to reporters.
State officials could not provide a cost for the 20 million masks Thursday afternoon or say where they were purchased from.
The highly-contagious omicron variant is fueling the pandemic in Maryland, Hogan said, with 95% of recent cases that are sequenced in the lab being identified as omicron.
As of Thursday, about one in four coronavirus test results reported to the state came back positive, and 3,428 people were being treated in the hospital for COVID-19. Hospital officials have said the vast majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been fully vaccinated.
And while Hogan encouraged Marylanders to wear masks, particularly the higher-quality ones, he said it’s not necessary to return to requiring people to wear them indoors.
He said that Marylanders are very good about wearing masks, “so I don’t think we have any reason to change strategy.”
Some local governments have reinstituted mask requirements during this latest wave of the pandemic. In the Baltimore area, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties all require masks to be worn in indoor public settings.
Hogan cited a Carnegie Mellon University tracking project that estimates mask-wearing by surveying people on Facebook about how often they wear a mask “most or all of the time when they are in public.” Maryland’s current rate is nearly 84%.
In addition to the site at University of Maryland Medical System Shore Regional Health in Easton, the state plans to set up five more hospital testing sites in the coming days: TidalHealth in Wicomico County, Garrett Regional Medical Center in Oakland, Holy Cross Hospital in Germantown, Howard County General Hospital in Columbia and Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie.
In the last few weeks, the state opened a dozen coronavirus testing sites adjacent to hospitals. Putting the testing sites adjacent to hospitals is designed to divert people from going to emergency rooms in search of a coronavirus test.
The Maryland Department of Health also is requiring testing of nursing home staff and visitors, to tamp down the spread of the virus among staff and residents.
Nursing home workers, volunteers and vendors must test twice a week whenever community transmission of the virus is high, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not, under the new order. And visitors will need to show a negative test or undergo a rapid test on-site before being allowed into nursing homes. Those requirements go into effect Jan. 21.