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With hospitals in crisis mode and surging metrics, Maryland Hospital Association calls on Gov. Hogan to reinstate public health emergency

The president and CEO of the Maryland organization that advocates for the state’s hospitals called Tuesday on Gov. Larry Hogan to reinstate a public health emergency in response to staffing and capacity crises forming at several medical facilities statewide.

Bob Atlas of the Maryland Hospital Association said such a declaration would “make plain to everyone how serious the situation is right now.” He said Maryland hospitals are nearly full and emergency departments are stretched thin, while critical staffing shortages, specifically in nursing, are exacerbating the problem.

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“Hospitals are seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, and hospitals have fewer clinicians ready to care for all patients who need hospital care,” Atlas said in an email. “Despite these challenges, hospitals are doing everything they can to ensure all Marylanders receive the best possible care.”

Such a public health emergency declaration would be limited and apply only to health care, health care services, and health care staffing, Atlas said, while providing more protections and flexibility for hospitals and the industry’s workers. It would be different from a “full” state of emergency declaration, he said.

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The state previously had a public health emergency in place for a year and a half, but it expired in August, along with a broader COVID state of emergency.

Atlas’s remarks come in the wake of more hospitals in the state each resorting to emergency standards of care. That enabled them to ease some of the burden on their personnel by postponing some patients’ surgical procedures, cutting back on documentation, and converting physical spaces to other uses.

The University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie and the Luminis Health network, which includes hospitals in Annapolis and Lanham, shifted Monday to “crisis” and “contingency” standards of care, following University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health declaring a hospital “disaster” Friday for its operations in Harford County.

Late Tuesday, University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital said it also would implement crisis standards of care in response to the “substantial increase of COVID-19 positive patients over the past month,” according to a news release.

Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, said the administration already has taken “a series of immediate, proactive actions” to aid hospitals, including providing more funding for staffing, more flexibility for licensing, maximizing alternate care centers and establishing a “surge operation center.” The administration also instituted new thresholds for when to make more hospital bed capacity available, Ricci said, and has been expanding statewide testing operations.

“Additional actions will be taken, as needed, in line with the data and the science,” Ricci said in an email.

Representatives from the Maryland Department of Health declined to comment.

On Tuesday, the state health department logged 112 more hospitalizations from the day before, pushing the total number of COVID-19 patients receiving hospital-based treatment to 1,826, the highest volume since January, which was before vaccinations became widespread.

Officials also added more than 6,500 infections to the state tally. The testing positivity rate crept up to more than 17%.

Some of the state health department’s data remained incomplete Tuesday, weeks after a cyberattack forced the agency to temporarily take its website offline and halt some local health department functions. But the daily death reporting tool returned Tuesday, showing at least 415 fatalities related to the virus since Dec. 4, the last day the department reported figures before the network breach.

That adds up to an average of approximately 18 virus deaths daily over much of the month of December, and brings the COVID-19 casualty count in Maryland to 11,437 throughout the pandemic. A two-week average for new daily deaths was in the low 40s during the corresponding time last year.

“Comparing last year’s wave to this one — is another indicator that vaccines work,” Ricci tweeted Tuesday.

The state’s COVID-19 dashboard still does not show the demographics of the dead or those who contracted the virus nor various metrics broken down by jurisdiction.

Thousands of people have tested positive for the virus over the last few weeks, including some 37,000 since Dec. 23.

Several counties have taken steps to address the surge of cases, including Baltimore County. Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. put in place a local state of emergency and reinstituted an indoor mask mandate that starts Wednesday morning, following similar guidance in Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City.

In Anne Arundel, where the Luminis Health hospital network and University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center shifted to crisis standards of care Monday, Democratic County Executive Steuart Pittman said he did not have the authority at this time to require people to wear masks inside public spaces.

“That is not my role, at this point, in Anne Arundel County,” Pittman said at a Tuesday news conference. “Our legislative body will be considering making some changes in the county code … they’ll be discussing that issue at next week’s meeting.”

Sherry Perkins, president of Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, said there are actions individuals can take to support hospitals, absent mandates from counties or the state.

They can start by getting vaccinated and getting third doses as soon as they are eligible, she said.

They should also avoid going to the hospitals’ emergency departments for issues such as coughs and colds, low-grade fevers and other non-life threatening problems that can be handled at urgent care centers or by primary care physicians. While COVID tests, especially the at-home variety, can be expensive and difficult to come by, Perkins also said people should not use the emergency department as a testing center. It should be reserved for “actual emergency needs,” she said.

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“We want to keep the hospitals open and safe for you,” Perkins said. “The time is now to help us so we can help you better.”

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Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.

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