Howard County hosted its second virtual town hall Wednesday night to update residents on the state of the county two months after coronavirus pandemic restrictions were put in place.
Coincidentally, the town hall started one hour after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state would enter phase one of reopening, beginning at 5 p.m. Friday when the stay-at-home order is lifted.
County Executive Calvin Ball began his remarks praising Hogan for giving discretion to counties and regions on reopening, while cautioning the county itself was not ready to reopen.
“We do not have the building blocks in place that the governor has outlined in stage one for reopening,” Ball said. “We are not relaxing restrictions to the extent that the governor announced.”
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As of Wednesday morning, there were 1,258 cases of coronavirus in Howard County, with 398 residents recovered and 42 deaths, according to the Howard County Health Department.
According to Maura Rossman, director of the Howard County Health Department, one third of the county’s deaths are nursing-home related.
While Ball said testing capacity has increased, only 2% of the county population has been tested as of Wednesday, and the hospitalization rate has not decreased in the past 14 days.
“We are not returning to normal any time that is immediate,” Ball said.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half town hall, nearly a dozen county officials, Howard County General Hospital President Steve Snelgrove and Applied Physics Lab Director Ralph Semmel updated almost 1,000 Facebook Live viewers on the status of the county’s response to the pandemic.
Rossman said over the past four days there has been a leveling off of cases. “I am seeing promising signs of leveling off or plateauing in ICUs in Howard County."
Without a consistent decrease in hospitalizations in the last 14 days in the county, Ball said it is too soon to reopen. His goal is to test 6,500 residents a week.
Ball also acknowledged Hogan’s acquisition of more tests, but cautioned that those tests would likely go to larger jurisdictions, not Howard County.
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During his remarks, Ball announced the six data markers the county would consider when deciding to reopen: the number of confirmed cases, the number of new hospitalizations, the number of patients admitted at Howard General’s ICU, the number of tests conducted, the amount of available personal protective equipment and available surge capacity at Howard General.
In his remarks, Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano said the school system has served 650,000 meals across 14 sites in the county. He emphasized that 22% of students in the county qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Sameer Sidh, Ball’s chief of staff, discussed the economic impacts the county is currently seeing from the pandemic. The county has spent more than $6 million purchasing technological equipment and PPE. Sidh said to expect a revenue impact of over $35 million due to loss of tax revenue.
[ Maryland Gov. Hogan lifts stay-at-home order, allows limited retail to resume ]
Kelly Cimino, director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, answered questions about the need for rental assistance in the county.
Last week Ball announced the allocation of $800,000 in county funding for rental assistance and eviction relief, pending County Council approval. The week before, County Council Chair Deb Jung, Vice Chair Liz Walsh and member Christiana Mercer Rigby filed emergency legislation to protect and stabilize the rent of thousands of households and local businesses in the county.
Other announcements at the town hall included increasing testing capacity at the Columbia VEIP drive-thru station to 750 individuals a week, beginning next week. Snelgrove said Howard General has sufficient PPE for staff and patients, as well as “all the ventilators we need.” At APL, Semmel, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, said there have been no layoffs or furloughs at the largest employer in the county, with the majority of the laboratory’s more than 8,000 employees working from home.
As listeners asked questions about implications of the governor’s announcement on the county, Ball provided few specifics, saying there would be more direction from the county in the next few days.