House Leaders Call for Extension of Public Health Emergency, While Counties Take New Precautions – Maryland Matters – Josh Kurtz

House Leaders Call For Extension Of Public Health Emergency While Counties Take New Precautions Maryland Matters Josh Kurtz
House Leaders Call For Extension Of Public Health Emergency While Counties Take New Precautions Maryland Matters Josh Kurtz
The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and other leaders of the House of Delegates are calling on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to extend Maryland’s declaration of a catastrophic health emergency, which is set to expire on Sunday.

In a letter sent Friday, Jones and five members of the House leadership team said the recent increase in COVID-19 cases as the delta variant spreads across the U.S. “requires that we change course once again.”

On Friday, there were 950 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the state. On Thursday, the state saw more than 1,000 new cases for the first time since April.

During the spring months, Maryland had seen a dramatic decline in daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, including a nearly month-long stretch with fewer than 100 new cases a day as vaccination rates increased.

On June 15, when Hogan announced the end of the statewide emergency, there were 67 new COVID cases reported and 194 patients hospitalized for treatment. On Friday, 492 Marylanders were receiving treatment in hospitals.

“Now is not the time to end the stated public health emergency — not only because of the limitations it will put on our State response but also because of the message that it sends to the public at large about the urgency of this situation, particularly as we prepare to send our children back to school,” the lawmakers wrote.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all but one Maryland county – Carroll – are experiencing substantial or high community transmission of the virus.

Lawmakers who signed the Friday letter, including House Health and Government Operations Chair Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard), are particularly concerned that allowing the catastrophic public health emergency declaration to lapse will have an effect on other areas of health care.

The Hogan administration has tied some of the state’s other health care responses to the emergency health declaration, including an expansion of telehealth services and payments to adult day care providers for pandemic-related costs and capacity limits.

At hearings, lawmakers have said there is no need for the state to link those programs to the health declaration, and that the telehealth expansion was meant to remain law until 2023.

Late Friday afternoon, the Hogan administration sent a letter to lawmakers informing them that the pandemic-level adult medical day care payments would continue through at least Sept. 30.

The dispute was over administrative payments the state is making to adult medical day care centers shuttered by the pandemic; such facilities were required to close for almost a year until mid-March of 2021. About 60 percent have re-opened at limited capacity to fully vaccinated clients.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement that “Maryland continues to be a national leader in pandemic response.”

Ricci said state officials remain “very concerned about the rise in infections among the unvaccinated” and will continue vaccination efforts, but that a state of emergency is not required for a “robust public health response.”

“Part of what has kept us a national leader is how we have incorporated our public health response — and all of the testing, tracing, surge capacity, and vaccine distribution infrastructure the state built from scratch — into the day-to-day operations of state government,” Ricci said in a written statement. “Maryland is much better prepared to withstand the Delta variant surge, our hospitals remain well within their capacities, and our health metrics are among the lowest in the country.”

Pendergrass said in an interview that the state should be as quick to respond when cases are growing, as it was when restrictions were lifted. There is no reason that a statewide mask mandate shouldn’t be put back in place, she said.

“We have been generous in trusting the governor, giving him the power he needs to keep people safe,” Pendergrass said. “And in this case, he really needs to use them.”

The request from House leaders comes as counties announced additional steps to protect their employees, students and the public.

On Friday, Montgomery County Public Schools announced that employees must submit proof of vaccination or get weekly COVID-19 tests. The Prince George’s County Public Schools quickly followed suit.

Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) announced everyone entering county offices and facilities — employees and the general public alike — will be required to wear masks, effective Friday.

He called it a “commonsense step that will help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our workforce and visitors to our buildings and facilities.”

A similar order goes into effect in Howard County on Saturday.

Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins said “requiring masks is a necessary precaution to keep our employees and public safe.”

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.

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