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Sign the ‘damn mask’ mandate, Gov. Hogan; the pandemic is not over yet | COMMENTARY

Pedestrians walk past a large sign on Memorial Circle in Annapolis asking them to "Be Kind Wear A Mask, Stop COVID." Dec. 28, 2021. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette).
Pedestrians walk past a large sign on Memorial Circle in Annapolis asking them to "Be Kind Wear A Mask, Stop COVID." Dec. 28, 2021. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette). (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

From long lines for testing kits last weekend to still-overwhelmed hospitals and sky-high positivity rates, the COVID-19 omicron variant has quickly set pandemic records. For any in Maryland who might have labored under the false assumption that the days of emergency declarations and stricter public health rules were over, welcome back to reality — the pandemic isn’t finished with us yet. The good news is that omicron is likely to prove less deadly than delta, even though it is a serious threat requiring steps to address the surge. The bad news is that, nearly two years into the pandemic, the government approach often remains as uncertain, stumbling and haphazard as ever. From insufficient testing supplies to the failure of state health officials to notify hundreds of patients they may have received spoiled vaccine, a lot of coronavirus lessons don’t appear to have been learned.

The most obvious example of recent days is surely Gov. Larry Hogan’s continued refusal to impose a statewide mask mandate. As helpful as his decision to declare a 30-day state of emergency this week may have been (and a bit overdue, considering the pleas heard from hospitals that needed the order to increase staffing), Governor Hogan’s decision to “encourage” mask use but not mandate it statewide is surely counterproductive. His explanation that some citizens may do the opposite (presumably as a form of protest, not for deliberate self-harm) or that the state lacked the means to enforce a mandate ring hollow. After all, he imposed exactly such an order before, and failing to do so again sends a decidedly mixed message despite his “wear the damn mask” catch phrase and his Thursday announcement of new hospital testing sites. More likely, Mr. Hogan simply did not want to take the criticism that comes with COVID-related mandates, even as local leaders reinstituted their own mask orders. Could it be that the Republican governor with aspirations for a presidential or U.S. Senate bid doesn’t want to inconvenience or annoy mandate-hating GOP primary voters?

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Still, the central theme of Governor Hogan’s response — that the “most challenging” days of the pandemic are immediately ahead is right on point. Hopefully, Marylanders are getting that message loud and clear. This is the moment to return to the basics recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others: Wear masks, avoid crowds, wash hands and keep social distancing. Above all, people should be vaccinated and boosted. And boosters are now recommended by the CDC for children 12-to-17. Is everyone weary of hearing this sound medical advice over and over again? Us, too. But here’s a reminder of its importance: U.S. COVID-19 deaths have surpassed 827,879 with 2,691 recorded on Tuesday alone, according to the CDC. More than 100,000 Americans are even now stuck in hospital beds, including at least 4,000 children, which is double what it was just two weeks ago.

Some uncertainty in public policy is understandable. The risks versus the rewards of in-person school versus virtual learning have been an evolving calculation as variants and vaccination rates have progressed. This is difficult stuff. Even now, Mayor Brandon Scott’s push for a regional vaccine passport ― a system to allow people to share proof of vaccination at the touch of a cellphone — raises questions: Should participation be voluntary? Would it help businesses, such as restaurants, demonstrate to patrons that they are safer or further burden them? Is the timing right, given that omicron cases might recede in a matter of weeks? Would surrounding counties join in? Far less acceptable is the Maryland Department of Health’s failure to inform the public on a timely basis about mishandled and potentially spoiled vaccines administered by a California contractor, TrueCare24, to hundreds in the state — more than one-quarter of them imprisoned. Even now it’s not clear whether the TrueCare debacle was an isolated instance brought to light by a whistleblower or a product of lax oversight, which raises questions about whether other contractors also put ineffective shots in the arms of unsuspecting people. A pending audit may prove revealing.

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Better days are surely ahead. Omicron is cause for concern but not alarm at least not for the vaccinated, as President Joe Biden has observed. Although highly contagious, it results in milder symptoms and could pass quickly as it did in South Africa where it was first observed. Want it to pass faster and with the least harm? Take the cautious approach now, and we all escape its clutches that much sooner.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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