The coronavirus known as COVID-19 has been found in Carroll County, county officials announced Friday.
Commissioner Stephen Wantz, the Board of County Commissioners president, along with a host of top county officials, held a 3 p.m. news conference at the county office building to discuss the case. Wantz said the news conference was planned to be “proactive,” to show what county officials are doing to get ahead of the situation — but that changed.
“We have a situation here now in Carroll,” he said.
County leaders “strongly” advise Carroll residents against any public gatherings and ask organizers postpone events immediately.
“If you’re planning a gathering, do what you can to cancel it,” Ed Singer, county health officer, said Friday. “Have an event via video or teleconference. The measures put forth by the governor will help protect our citizens.”
Singer said the patient who tested positive for the coronavirus is a man in his 40s who has “very mild symptoms" and is recovering at home. The county received the results of the test Friday, he said.
Communicable disease nurses are starting to trace contacts the person with COVID-19 might have had and will reach out to any person who could be at risk, Kunz said Saturday. There will be an announcement if there is a risk to the public, she said. The county health department is also working with the state to expand testing capacity.
Singer said Friday the county cannot say where the man has been and will protect that person’s identity, though he added that the case was not associated with foreign travel.
“We have an idea of how we think the person got it, but it would be speculation at this point,” Singer said. “It’s very unlikely that they contracted it here.”
Singer said he could not share how many people are being tested in Carroll, as per directives from Maryland Department of Health.
As of noon Saturday, calls to the Carroll County Health Department hotline are “steady but not overwhelming,” said Maggie Kunz, public information officer for the health department.
Anyone who thinks they or a family member might be showing coronavirus symptoms can call the health department’s COVID-19 hotline, which is available 8 am. through 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and the weekend of March 14, at 410-876-4848, or contact their doctor.
Earlier Friday, Wantz declared a state of emergency for the county in a meeting of more than 100 people from across the county. Chris Winebrenner, communications manager for Carroll County, first confirmed the positive test in a phone interview at about 1:45 p.m. Friday.
Wantz said the county’s state of emergency will last until the state’s state of emergency ends.
Access to the county office building will be allowed by appointment only, and all non-critical meetings are cancelled, Wantz said in the news conference. Anyone entering the building will be asked questions such as whether they are feeling well, have they traveled out of the country and have they been in contact with anyone with COVID-19.
All outside business, training and travel is suspended for county employees until further notice, Wantz said. Open sessions will continue for now and will be live streamed, though access will not be allowed unless by appointment.
“What we’re trying to do is prevent the spread,” Singer said, so that the local health care system can keep up and not be overwhelmed.
Mark Olszyk, chief medical officer for Carroll Hospital, said the hospital will offer drive-through testing for the coronavirus for pre-screened patients who’ve been recommended by their primary care provider. He said the sampling process takes about five seconds by swabbing the patient’s nose.
Primary care providers in the LifeBridge Health system have a phone number to reach the LifeBridge COVID-19 telehealth command center and inform them of patients, according to Olszyk. The telehealth center will tell hospital staff who is expected to arrive to the drive-through. Patients will leave their vehicle window up, show their identification to hospital staff, and speak to staff by calling a cellphone number provided to them. Then patient will roll down their window, have their nose swabbed, and drive off.
Olszyk said hospital staff run two tests — one to evaluate for over a dozen common viruses, one to check for COVID-19.
“We are doing all we can to limit the spread of the virus and to protect members of our community,” he said.
A state officials said Saturday morning the total number of confirmed cases in Maryland has risen to 26.
Dr. Henry Taylor, deputy health officer, said at the meeting earlier Friday that people who think they should be tested for COVID-19 should first be screened by telephone. Depending on the person’s answers to the questions, it may be recommended that they have a specimen collected to be tested. Fever, cough and travel are some of the factors screeners are looking for, Taylor said.
Sheriff Jim DeWees said at the news conference that residents can expect to see law enforcement present at the hospital and in area retail stores as customers flock there to pick up supplies.
Visitors to Carroll County Detention Center have been restricted, DeWees said. Attorneys will be able to meet with inmates in what he described as a controlled environment.
Steven Lockard, superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools, said school buses and buildings will be disinfected while students are dismissed. Hogan on Thursday declared all schools would be closed from March 16 to 27. Free meal distribution for any child under 18 will be provided from locations in Westminster, Taneytown, Manchester and southern Carroll. More information can be found on the school district’s website, www.carrollk12.org.
“Students are being provided with materials to allow for learning to occur during the closure," Lockard said. "There will be a variety of activities available, including online as well as traditional paper and pencil.”
Carroll Community College will also transition to online learning. James Ball, college president, said in the news conference that spring break will run from March 16 to 29, then online learning will occur from March 30 to April 12. Then the college will re-evaluate the situation and decide whether to continue online learning. During the two-week online period, some students will have access to the campus.
“We’re concerned about the students who may not have access to online resources, so we’re going to let them avail use of the campus on a case-by-case basis and give them access to computers and so on,” Ball said. “We’ll be keeping the campus clean during that time.”
The county’s emergency operations center has been at an enhanced level since March 5 and will be raised at 6 p.m. Friday, said Valerie Hawkins, emergency manager for the county.
Scott Campbell, director of public safety, ensured calls to 911 will still be answered, regardless of the virus spread.
Brian DeLeonardo, Carroll County state’s attorney and president of Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association, urged court administrators to close the courts across the state to only deal with essential matters.
Later Friday evening, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera announced exactly that, closing state courts to the public for three weeks.
A news release from the Maryland Judiciary stated, “Court personnel are to report to work as usual. The courts will be staffed to handle emergency matters including, but not limited to, domestic violence petitions, bail reviews, juvenile detention and shelter hearings, and search warrants. Judges are authorized to use remote electronic means of conducting legal proceedings when possible.”
The most vulnerable population, people 60 years or older, can no longer attend senior centers, which the governor also ordered to close. Celene Steckel, director of citizen services, said the Bureau of Aging and Disabilities office remains open and county staff are in touch with senior center members to ensure they have food, medication and other essentials. Emergency housing assistance services will continue, and Steckel said it’s preferred that people call with concerns. In-person appointments will occur as necessary. Local soup kitchens will continue operating, but will offer bagged lunches for pickup instead of having people congregate for meals, she said.
The five commissioners met Thursday afternoon to declare the state of emergency starting Friday, according to Wantz, allowing him as the president of the board to streamline decision making without having to convene the entire board.
Singer and Taylor said at the Friday meeting that the steps being taken by the state and local governments now may seem extreme and disruptive to daily life, but action is being taken so the health care system is not overwhelmed with patients.
“We’re not going to stop it at this point. There’s no way that it’s going to be contained within the United States,” Singer said.
Taylor recommended keeping a distance of 6 feet between people and noted the disease is not airborne, but spreads through droplets. It is important for surfaces to be cleaned frequently and people to cover their coughs and sneezes, he said. People should wash their hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds, which is more effective than using hand sanitizer, Taylor said, because of the abrasion that occurs when rubbing hands together. If soap and water is not available, Taylor advises using sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
A Westminster police officer asked if certain cleaning products are better than others. Singer said products with chlorine are most effective, but others should work as well. He recommended people read packaging to check how long a product should remain on a surface before it is wiped away, for maximum effectiveness.
While Hogan on Thursday prohibited meetings of 250 people or more, Singer told the crowd at the Carroll County Public Safety Training Center that meetings of even the size of that meeting are a concern.
“There’s a low risk that anybody here in this room or anywhere in Carroll County is going to contract the COVID-19 virus, but that’s going to change,” Singer said.
Updates on the number of Maryland cases and other important information can be found on the health department’s COVID-19 webpage at cchd.maryland.gov/covid-19/.
This story has been updated.