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Maryland reports first coronavirus death as cases surge and hospitals plan to add beds

A Prince George’s County man in his 60s became Maryland’s first resident to die of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday night.

The man died from the COVID-19 illness acquired through community transmission, officials said. He suffered from underlying health problems, they said.

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“I ask all Marylanders to join me in praying for his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” Hogan said. “As we pray for his loved ones, I ask that we continue to pray for each other, for our state, and for our nation as we face this crisis together.”

The man’s death came as confirmed coronavirus cases surged dramatically for a second straight day in Maryland — including several that suggested the pathogen is circulating in Baltimore — and hospitals prepared for a surge in patients, including Mercy Medical Center, which received emergency state approval for an immediate $12.5 million expansion.

Mercy expects to build a 32-bed acute-care unit atop its downtown Baltimore hospital in about 2½ months, helping to address a need for as many as 6,000 additional hospital beds in what Hogan called a worst-case scenario. Other hospitals in the state have been readying triage tents and looking at ways to free up space to add beds.

The state’s number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections rose 49% to 85 on Wednesday. That included five cases in Baltimore, where Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young declared a state of emergency and health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said “it’s clear that there’s been community transmission" of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus arrived in Maryland two weeks ago when the first three positive cases were confirmed March 5. As it has spread throughout the world, the respiratory illness has sickened more than 215,000 people and killed more than 8,700. In the United States, despite problems with testing availability, more than 7,700 cases have been confirmed and 119 have died, including the Prince George’s County man.

Just days after Hogan ordered restaurant dining rooms, bars, gyms and movie theaters closed, he said he will hold a news conference at 10 a.m. Thursday in Annapolis to “provide further updates and announce additional actions.”

“We should continue to expect the number of cases to dramatically and rapidly rise,” Hogan said Monday. “This is going to be much harder, take much longer and be much worse than almost anyone is currently understanding."

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State and local health officials continued to urge residents to stay home and stop the spread of the outbreak. Electronic signs over the state’s highways alerted drivers Wednesday: “SAVE LIVES NOW, STAY HOME.”

Economic dominoes continued to fall as infection cases rose, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average sinking an additional 1,300 points, enough to erase all gains over the past three years.

Unemployment insurance claims surged across the country, and in Maryland, where state labor officials said they received 5,400 jobless claims Monday, five times the normal rate.

Both state and federal lawmakers acted in response. As the Maryland General Assembly adjourned early for the first time since the Civil War, it passed emergency legislation extending unemployment benefits to those who have to leave their jobs due to risk of coronavirus exposure or to care for an infected relative. Congress sent a bill to President Donald Trump extending paid leave to many Americans affected by the pandemic.

And a growing list of universities, including Johns Hopkins and Morgan State, canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester and started looking at alternatives for graduations.

Among new COVID-19 cases in Maryland that were revealed Wednesday, 23 involved people 19 to 64 years old. Five people age 65 or older were reported infected. The coronavirus is especially dangerous to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

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Harford County officials declared a state of emergency as they announced their third case Wednesday, involving a 47-year-old man who lives in the county but tested positive and self-isolated while working in Boston. County Executive Barry Glassman said the declaration was needed for “flexibility in maintaining county government functions during the public health crisis.”

In Baltimore County, the infected health care provider at Northwest Hospital informed staff and went into a home quarantine. Officials at LifeBridge, the hospital’s owner, said individuals who may have come in contact with the person were identified and that the hospital is “following our internal protocols, including state and federal guidelines, to determine the next appropriate steps.”

LifeBridge also said a patient tested positive for COVID-19 at Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore. The person is “doing well" and is expected to be discharged soon, officials said.

The American Red Cross urged healthy people to donate blood. The pandemic has forced organizers of about 2,700 blood drives across the country to cancel events that would have been expected to draw some 86,000 donors.

As Maryland prepares for an expected surge in patients infected with COVID-19, which causes pneumonia and organ failure in the most extreme cases, Hogan said state and hospital officials are gearing up for an expected surge in patients.

Hogan said Monday that the state planned to add 6,000 acute-care hospital beds to the 8,000 it already has. The next day, the Maryland Hospital Association and state health officials said so many more beds likely will not be required due to Hogan’s aggressive social distancing orders, calling that a worst-case-scenario need. But in several cable news appearances Wednesday, Hogan reiterated the planning for adding 6,000 beds.

“We don’t have time to wait,” he said during a morning interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Hogan said state officials have looked into opening closed hospital facilities and working with the National Guard and the private sector to add more beds and find staff to attend to the possible surge in patients.

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But Mercy is perhaps the first hospital to announce a significant addition amid the coronavirus outbreak. It will construct the expansion on the 17th floor at its Mary Catherine Bunting Center, which opened on St. Paul Street in 2010. The construction plan moved forward after the Maryland Health Care Commission granted Mercy an emergency certificate of need, the hospital said.

Other hospitals, such as the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and those in the University of Maryland Medical System, have instead pitched temperature-controlled tents in which they could quickly add extra beds for patients in the event of a surge. The tents popped up in parking garages and lots adjacent to the hospitals.

“Mercy is committed to doing everything we can to serve our community and create additional capacity to provide critical health services during this crisis,” said Thomas R. Mullen, president and CEO of Mercy Health Services, in a statement. “This project is a major investment during a time of great uncertainty but it’s the right thing to do and will be essential to address the potential surge in patients in need of hospitalization in the future as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The hospital said it has partnered with Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., based in Towson, on the project. The giant construction firm will provide short-term financing to allow the project to move forward as quickly as possible, Mercy said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Meredith Cohn, Talia Richman, Colin Campbell, S. Wayne Carter Jr., Jeff Barker and Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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