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Harford hospitals ready more beds anticipating a peak in coronavirus cases later this month

Harford health officials said they have readied more beds in anticipation of a peak in coronavirus cases and taken other steps to protect against a surge.

While several models make conflicting predictions of when the peak in cases will hit, the county could crest the wave between April 18 and the beginning of May, Harford County Health Officer Russell Moy said in an address to the Harford County Council Tuesday night.

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From speaking with medical professionals in areas like New Jersey and New York, that peak, Dr. Faheem Younus said, could fill 25% to 50% of all available hospital beds with COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Faheem Younus is the Chief Quality Officer and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health.
Dr. Faheem Younus is the Chief Quality Officer and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health.(Courtesy UMMS)

Working as the chief quality officer and chief of infectious diseases at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, Younus said Harford’s hospitals had a head-start in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. The health system saw its first case of coronavirus a month ago, March 8, and began preparing for a wider number of cases early, opening lines of communication with county agencies and other medical services in the area.

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“Everybody is a partner under these circumstances,” Younus said.

Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace have increased the total number of available beds by “way over 100,” Younus said, as part of the hospitals’ surge plan for the “once-in-a-century event.” Capacity between the two hospitals is well over 300, Younus said.

The surge plan is divided into eight levels, corresponding to severity of the spike in cases. Currently, UCH is on level two — a low surge — and treating 13 COVID patients across Upper Chesapeake and Harford Memorial.

To protect its patients and personnel, UCH has restricted visitation and directed all staff to wear face masks. It has also halted elective surgeries.

Since its first case, UCH began testing people referred by their doctors, and testing has become quicker. At the onset, supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and COVID-19 tests were limited, but now the hospital has taken a number of precautions to improve its response to the pandemic.

“We are much better prepared, our testing is much more robust,” Younus said. “If somebody came to our hospital today, we could have that test result within a day.”

The hospitals have put tents in their parking lots, Younus said, and are considering alternate sites in case demand for care exceeds the hospital capacity, though he said it was too early to give specifics on those overflow sites. UCH is prepared to use all of its available space for patients, Younus said, including conference rooms, for instance.

Moy said the situation is constantly changing, as is the understanding of the coronavirus and how to prevent it. Moy urged county residents to stay home except to pick up absolute necessities and to treat everybody like a potential carrier of the virus.

Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that carriers can be infectious two days before symptoms manifest, he said, which changes the calculus for preventing transmission. It is far more infectious than originally thought.

“Up to 25% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms,” Moy said. “It has a big affect on how we address this pandemic.”

Additionally, simply speaking is enough to transmit the virus, Moy said, as small droplets of infectious fluids can spray like mist and reach another person. The virus has also defied demographics, infecting young and old alike.

UCH has an adequate number of ventilators — a shortage of which has caused national concern; Younus said fears of running out of them are over-hyped.

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Regrettably, most of the people on ventilators have less than a coin-flip’s chance of surviving — and some studies say chances of survival are less than 25%, he said. Many coronavirus patients that require ventilators are on them for a couple of weeks — significantly longer than the one to four days most regular patients need.

“The outcomes are not very good,” he said of patients on ventilators.

After a patient is cured of the virus, Younus said, they build up antibodies that can help stave off COVID-19 infection. It is unknown if that resistance is temporary or permanent, he said, and only time will tell.

Some hospitals in China have had success transfusing plasma from recovered patients into critically ill patients on ventilators, he said. While not a panacea, the results have been promising as all the patients who received the plasma therapy showed improvement and were able to come off their ventilators.

Younus likened the pandemic to seeing trees sprout leaves after the winter. And he forecasted a hard metaphorical winter ahead for Maryland, including significant social and economic losses. But those are secondary, he said, to public health, and will recover.

"That is like losing the leaves. We will get them back,” he said. “Losing human beings is like losing trees.”

As of Wednesday morning, there were 86 confirmed coronavirus cases in Harford County, according to state data, representing a one-day increase of 45% from the number of cases reported Tuesday. No COVID-19 related deaths have been reported in Harford thus far.

Statewide, confirmed cases increased by over 1,000 Wednesday — representing the largest single-day spike since the first cases were reported in Maryland. Among the 5,529 confirmed cases, 124 Marylanders have died from the respiratory virus.

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