Transmission of COVID-19 in Harford County, particularly the Delta variant, is now considered “substantial,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That has prompted the county’s largest employer to implement indoor masks mandates and County Executive Barry Glassman to encourage unvaccinated residents to get their COVID shot.
“Clearly, the state and national numbers indicate — although there are a small percentage of breakthrough cases — that indeed most of this spike, this latest surge, is folks who are unvaccinated,” Glassman said in an interview with The Aegis on Thursday.
Roughly 55% of Harford residents have been fully vaccinated, but the number of new people getting their shot has slowed significantly since late spring. Meanwhile, over the last seven days, Harford County has reported an average of 8.89 new cases per 100,000 people, according to the latest data from the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. The trend is similar to the statewide rate of 9.21 cases per 100,000 reported Thursday.
The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests was up to 4.56% in the county, as reported Thursday, the highest rate locally since the end of April, and nearly a full percentage point higher than the state’s 3.64% positivity rate.
Both average case and positivity rates had bottomed out and leveled off in Harford and statewide during the last week of June, but began climbing again in mid-July.
On Wednesday, Aberdeen Proving Ground announced because Harford and Cecil counties had “substantial” risk levels for COVID-19 transmission, it would move to HPCON Bravo and masks would be required to be worn within all indoor locations on post, regardless of vaccination status.
The U.S. Army installation also reported an increase of people coming to work with symptoms of COVID-19, according to a Facebook post.
“Please stay home if you are not feeling well. If you develop any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, call your supervisor from your home or vehicle,” the message states. “Symptomatic individuals should not enter the workplace and risk exposing others.”
As of Thursday morning, there were 13 individuals between Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and Harford Memorial Hospital with COVID, an increase from the eight hospitalizations in the county Tuesday. Glassman said he’s watching the local hospitalization data closely.
“That’s the front line where you’re going to see the ability to treat not only COVID patients, but to watch the impact it has those other treatments and surgeries and things that happen at the hospital,” Glassman said.
And that’s a key part of why he wants to continue urging more people to get vaccinated.
“The data is very clear that it does keep you out of the hospital and does relieve that burden from emergency services and the hospital for patients,” he said.
While he’s taking a day-by-day approach to the current increase in cases, Glassman admits he’s worried about a surge in the fall similar to what Maryland saw last year if more people don’t get vaccinated.
“Right now, this is part of an unvaccinated surge,” he said. “I’m a strong believer in the data and efficacy of these vaccines. We need to continue to get more folks vaccinated. That’ll be our insulation in the fall and winter against another surge that is likely to come when we all go back indoors and get closer to the holidays.”
New vaccinations have significantly slowed in Harford County over the past few months, although there has been a slight uptick since infections started to rise again, the county executive said.
“I think maybe the unvaccinated are finally losing that false sense of security that maybe they thought they didn’t need it and now they’re seeing in fact, the numbers are indicating if you don’t have the vaccine, you’re more likely to end up in the hospital or have a more severe case,” Glassman said.
“Really, the vaccines are out there and the scheduling is easy now,” he added. “There’s no impediment to getting it other than you making the decision.”
As a Republican, Glassman said he recognizes that there is a political divide when deciding whether to get a COVID shot. Polls have shown Democrats are more inclined to get vaccinated than Republicans.
“I get the nastygrams ... I’ll take the bumps on that. There are certain segments of the Republican Party, and other party too, that aren’t particularly happy with one direction or the other,” Glassman said. “I’m not an expert, but I’ve read enough reports on the vaccines, I’m confident they are our best hope to weather this thing.”
Glassman received his COVID vaccine in March.
In talking to constituents who might be skeptical about getting their vaccine, including those in his own party, Glassman said he encourages them to discuss it with their physician.
“Listen, if you don’t trust a politician or someone on TV, talk to your doctor, get the pros and cons, and make your decision,” he said. “I try to urge them or point them to someone they trust more than a public official.”
Masks not required
Glassman, who throughout the pandemic has followed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s lead when it comes to restrictions and masking orders, said that would likely continue to be his strategy.
“I’m not likely to go out and do something the state is not requiring me to do,” Glassman, a Republican, said. “Nothing, of course, is off the table. We really don’t know what’s going to happen in two to three months or what’s going to happen next week. If this thing continues to surge or get out of hand, certainly we’re going to have to take a look at some stronger measures.”
At a news conference Thursday, Hogan announced Maryland will require state employees at a number of congregate facilities like jails and nursing homes to get COVID-19 vaccinations, or submit to regular testing and mask-wearing restrictions starting Sept. 1. Hogan also reiterated Thursday he wouldn’t be instituting new mask requirements or other restrictions.
Likewise, Glassman does not plan to require unvaccinated people to wear masks in county office buildings, unlike other jurisdictions like Anne Arundel and Howard counties, but encouraged county employees who are not vaccinated to do so.
“Actually, if an employee is not vaccinated, to me it makes sense that they probably should wear a mask,” Glassman said, adding vaccinated people should also feel free to wear a mask if they want to or feel the need to do it.
Masks in schools
Harford County Public Schools have not made a decision regarding whether students will be required to wear masks in the fall, but it will be a topic of discussion at the Board of Education’s next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 16, according to spokesperson Jillian Lader.
Coinciding with Gov. Hogan’s decision to lift masking mandates earlier this summer, HCPS stopped requiring students, teachers or other staff to wear masks as of July 1, which included all summer programs. At the time, the school system anticipated beginning the 2021-2022 school year without masks.
Harford schools have required masks on buses for students participating in summer programs who are eligible for and using transportation, per CDC and Maryland State Department of Education guidelines.
Youth age 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated.
Baltimore County Public Schools announced last week that it would require all students, staff and visitors to its buildings to wear masks during the fall semester, prompting some Harford politicians to write to the local school system urging them not to follow suit.
A July 30 letter to the Board of Education from Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican representing Harford and Baltimore counties, described making children wear masks in school as “nothing short of child abuse,” and said she was encouraging Baltimore County parents upset with the local policies to withdraw their kids from public schools.
County Councilman Robert Wagner also wrote to the school board, claiming that relying on the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci and the makers and marketers of emergency use vaccines is a mistake.
“How much can you truly rely on these individuals, companies and organizations when it is clear that a driving force is profit over sincere health concerns,” the District E councilman wrote in the Aug. 2 letter.
Glassman did not want to weigh-in on whether the school system should require masks for students in the fall.
“I’m going to let the school board make that decision. I’ve got enough on my plate and that’s their job and certainly, there’s data on both sides they’re going to have to evaluate,” he said. “They’re going to have to take their data and make the best decision for their staff, the teachers and their children.”