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‘We are in a crisis’: Baltimore County Council approves state-of-emergency order amid COVID surge

Baltimore County’s mask mandate is now in effect through the end of January.

The County Council during its Monday meeting approved a resolution by a 6-1 margin that County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced last week reinstating a state of emergency during the coronavirus pandemic, giving the administration authority to require face coverings indoors and allowing them to quickly procure supplies.

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Republican Councilman Todd Crandell voted against the measure.

Crandell said he was “not discounting the fact that omicron has been spreading wildly and causing our numbers to rise so quickly, but I’m not sure where the state of emergency comes into play.”

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Crandell said there’s precedent for a county executive to circumvent the County Council to procure supplies more quickly; former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz did that when he spent millions on body-worn cameras for police officers, he noted.

“My concerns go back to the powers that it gives a county executive to be able to control certain aspects of commerce, and controlling aspects of places of amusement and places of assembly. My concern goes down to the businesses that have already been hit hard by the pandemic,” he said.

The face-covering mandate went into effect Dec. 29 and applies to all individuals 5 and older patronizing restaurants and food businesses, retail stores, houses of worship, or any establishment that serves the public. The County Council’s approval allows it to extend to Jan. 31, and it would need to sign off on any subsequent extensions.

The order comes as county cases have risen exponentially, with at least 1,500 new cases confirmed each day since Dec. 27; the county’s five-day positivity rate is now 39.9% (surpassing the 5% figure that’s become an international benchmark for when the virus spread becomes uncontrolled).

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“We are in a crisis,” county health officer Dr. Gregory Branch told council members.

Baltimore County is among jurisdictions with the largest 14-day jump in case rates per 1,000 people, behind Baltimore City and five other counties. Ambulance drivers are waiting hours for hospital staff to find space for patients in the emergency room, Branch said; there were only a dozen intensive care unit beds available across the county Monday.

“If you need emergency medical care for like a heart attack, pulmonary embolism or stroke or any other major illness … God help you,” Branch said. “It does not matter if you have 1,000 extra hospital beds if you don’t have the clinical staff to man them.”

Nearly 2,000 Baltimore County residents have died from COVID-19 complications during the pandemic. Statewide, almost 11,900 Marylanders have been killed by the virus, and the testing positivity rate is 26.87%; marginally below the early pandemic peak of 26.88% in March 2020.

As of Sunday, 336 patients were being treated in county hospitals for COVID-19, health department spokeswoman Elyn Garrett-Jones said; that’s a 286% increase from the number hospitalized just a month ago, when 87 people were hospitalized Dec. 2.

Some Maryland hospitals have begun shifting into crisis mode to ease some of the burden on doctors and nurses; that could mean postponing some patients’ surgical procedures, cutting back on documentation for now, and converting physical spaces to other uses as needed — including the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, which adopted emergency protocols Monday.

The Maryland Hospital Association, which advocates for the state’s hospitals, has urged Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to restore a statewide emergency order as hospitalizations climb.

“As of right now we have a serious public health emergency,” said Republican Councilman David Marks, who twice before voted against extending a local emergency order.

“Candidly, the procurement [of test kits] alone in my mind is enough to justify a vote in favor of this,” he said.

The local state-of-emergency order gives Olszewski’s administration special powers over safety measures like capacity limits and allows the county to move more quickly to acquire supplies like masks and COVID-19 tests, which have become scarcer.

“We’re struggling,” county administrator Stacy Rogers said during the meeting. “We have to be able to access services and supplies immediately.”

In the past month alone, more than 162,000 people have tested positive, according to state data. That’s about one in every 25 Marylanders.

The county is among a handful of localities that have enacted coronavirus-related restrictions in the last month; Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties have also brought back mask orders. Baltimore City’s face-covering mandate has been in place for months.

Baltimore Sun reporters Hallie Miller and Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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