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Carroll commissioners encourage vaccinations, vote to require masks in government buildings

As regional hospitals continue to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients during this latest surge of the pandemic, Carroll County commissioners voted on Thursday to require mask wearing by all visitors to government buildings.

During a special meeting between the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, Carroll General Hospital staff and county health department officials, hospital President Garrett Hoover told the commissioners that as the state has set new records for positive cases, at LifeBridge facilities, in-house case totals remain high. As of Tuesday there were 56 COVID cases at Carroll Hospital, 61 at Northwest Hospital and 87 at Sinai Hospital.

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Hoover said the hospitals continue to be challenged by the number of patients, severity levels and staff shortages.

“The average census for the Critical Care Unit [at Carroll Hospital] pre-pandemic was seven to eight patients a day,” he said. “Now we’re overflowing. … For the past several weeks we’ve had 10, 12, 14 patients in a day.”

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On Tuesday the hospital had a total of 169 patients, 56 with COVID-19 and 14 in the CCU.

He said many elective procedures now must be put on hold while hospitals continue to operate on red alert, meaning no electrocardiogram-monitored beds are available, and yellow alert, which is when the Emergency Department requests that it be sent no patients in need of urgent medical care.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, asked how far patients have to go if Carroll Hospital is unable to provide urgent care.

“We’ve sent patients to Hanover, York and Gettysburg. … Finding a critical care bed in the State of Maryland is incredibly difficult right now,” Hoover responded.

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Michael Robinson, director of Fire and Emergency Medical Services for Carroll County, is recommending that federal strike teams of health care staff be deployed through the Department of Health and Human Services. These teams would have the capability to set up and run surge facilities throughout the county, providing a place for emergency medical services to take patients for immediate care once hospitals reach their limits.

“We got to get people to stop calling 911 and going to the emergency room because there is nowhere to put them. … On top of that, our department is seeing some staffing issues,” Robinson said. “With the omicron variant, the saturation of events that occurred on Christmas, we are going to see a surge this weekend and another surge beyond that.”

According to acting Carroll County Health Officer Sue Boyle, omicron is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 found in the community.

“The most effective way to lessen the impact and decrease transmission is through vaccinations,” she said. “Vaccinations are effective against all variants right now … and we are expanding our vaccination clinic in the county.”

To accommodate more people, the clinics will be moved from the health department’s building in Westminster to Carroll Community College starting Jan. 7. Vaccines will be available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In addition, she said, the Carroll County Agricultural Center has been approved as a drive-thru testing site, which she hopes to have up and running by next week. The site will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays.

She said the health department is returning to curbside and appointment-only services.

“I need the workforce that I have to stay safe and healthy,” she said.

Deputy Health Officer Dr. Robert Wack told commissioners that health care systems in the county are approaching their limits

“What is driving this whole thing is community transmission and we do know now that vaccinations work, that masks work, that social distancing works,” he said. “So whatever policy changes you guys can make addressing those three variables in our community … that will help slow this down.”

Commissioner President Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said he had no intent of putting any mandates in place.

“I don’t think we are in a position to do that. … It’s not our role to put a mandate in place for Carroll County as a whole,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, commissioners voted to institute a modified mask policy for Carroll County government facilities only, with Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, voting against.

Unvaccinated Carroll County government employees will be required to wear an appropriate mask (preferably N95 or KN95) in government facilities. All visitors to county facilities, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks while inside. This policy goes into effect Jan. 1.

Bouchat said the motion approved by his colleagues “forces un-vaxed county employees into N95 masks and not vaxed employees, who scientifically can spread COVID the same as anyone else. … This is clearly a violation of the 14th Amendment and discriminatory under both state and federal labor laws.”

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