The sole hospital in one Southern Maryland county is at capacity. The number of covid-19 patients in another county, home to the state’s capital, more than doubled in just two weeks. And the seven-day average of patients being treated for covid-19 in Baltimore City has jumped nearly 72 percent since the end of last month.
Hospitalization data — the only coronavirus statistics that health officials in Maryland have had available to them since a cyberattack shut down the state Department of Health’s website nearly two weeks ago — paints an alarming picture of the continued spread of the coronavirus in Maryland and of the ability of hospitals across the state to handle it.
Cases in Virginia and the District also are increasing. Virginia’s seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 people has nearly doubled since the beginning of the month, while the number in D.C. has tripled during that time. Meanwhile, the new omicron variant has been found in all three jurisdictions, with 10 cases confirmed in Maryland, one in Virginia and two in the District.
“The winter surge is definitely upon us,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said at a news conference Wednesday.
The state has asked hospitals to submit updated surge capacity plans by this week and prepare for the potential cancellation of elective surgeries if the current wave of covid-19 hospitalizations intensifies.
Bob Atlas, president and chief executive of the Maryland Hospital Association, said 93 percent of hospital beds across the state are full. Of the state’s 8,250 hospital beds, covid-19 patients fill 1,150 — or 15 percent — of them.
“Covid is not the dominant condition, but it is what is pushing us to the limit,” Atlas said.
Under Wednesday’s state order, hospitals will begin canceling elective surgeries when the number of people hospitalized statewide for covid-19 hits 1,200. If it reaches 1,500, the hospitals are directed to implement their pandemic plans, which outline how they’ll maximize capacity, such as redeploying staff and adding beds.
Atlas said the number of covid-19 patients in Maryland hospitals is not as high as it was at the peak of the pandemic in January, when it topped out at 1,950 patients. But during some past peaks, he said, hospitals also were dealing with fewer non-covid patients at the same time.
“When we had the first wave, people were … effectively in lockdown so, for example, we had fewer car accidents,” Atlas said. “The difference now is our workforce, our workforce is depleted.”
Holy Cross Health, one of the largest hospital systems in Montgomery County, has seen a marked uptick in covid-related hospitalizations since Thanksgiving, said communications manager Samantha Thompson.
About 20 to 30 patients are hospitalized at the system’s two locations, compared with about 14 just before Thanksgiving. Those who are most sick tend to be either unvaccinated people or vaccinated people with underlying health conditions, Thompson said.
She urged residents to abide by precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing during the upcoming holiday season so as to avert a further spike in covid-related hospitalizations. “Our front-line medical staff are already mentally and physically fatigued,” she said. “[Another spike] is not just unfortunate, it’s so hard on our medical staff.”
Currently, our only hospital in Calvert is at capacity. 10 of those medical ward and ICU beds are occupied by people with severe Covid infections. 8 of the 10 were unvaccinated, and presumably thought Covid infection would never endanger them.— Cal. Co. Health Dept (@CalvertHealth) December 15, 2021
The Calvert County Health Department tweeted on Wednesday that the county’s only hospital is “at capacity,” with 10 beds occupied by people with severe cases of covid-19.
Laurence Polsky, the health officer in Calvert, said the hospitalization data is more useful in some ways than the case rate because it shows the severity of the illnesses.
“We understand that people are tired of dealing with this,” Polsky said. “We’re tired of dealing with this. But there is still a reality that we are facing and that is that people are continuing to get very, very sick.”
David Marcozzi, the covid-19 incident commander for the University of Maryland Medical System, said the 12 hospitals in the system have experienced a 187 percent increase in covid-19 patients in the past four weeks and "are only beginning to feel the impact of the omicron variant.”
Atlas joined Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and local health officials in calling on unvaccinated residents to get a vaccine and for those who have been vaccinated to get a booster when they are eligible.
According to hospital officials, Atlas said, three-quarters of the covid-19 patients being treated are unvaccinated. He said “almost none” of the covid patients who are hospitalized are people who were vaccinated and received a booster.
“There really is no longer an excuse. Vaccines are safe and effective,” he said.
Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the health officer in Anne Arundel County, also focused his message during a news conference earlier this week on getting vaccinated. He said some people hospitalized in Anne Arundel never went back for their second shots.
Like other parts of the state, Montgomery, a highly vaccinated county, has seen the number of covid-19 patients in need of acute or intensive care climb since the start of December, with total covid-related hospitalizations hitting a seven-month high this week. Nursing homes, groups homes and schools in the county have also seen an uptick in outbreaks, Elrich said.
Montgomery officials have not been able to track the vaccination status of those who have been hospitalized because of Maryland’s data reporting outage, but as of early December, about 56 percent of those hospitalized were unvaccinated and 44 percent were vaccinated.
Atlas said he appreciates Hogan and Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader for “trying to be helpful” but that hospitals already have taken many of the steps that the order calls for, including moving patients from at-capacity hospitals to those with available space.
Meanwhile, the state data outage continued into its 12th day. On Wednesday, the Department of Health posted a message on its website that it is continuing to restore data to the site. Health officials are working with state and federal law enforcement and there “continues to be no evidence of any data being compromised," according to the post. Local health officers say their work has become even more difficult without the case rate data they have relied on throughout the pandemic.
“It’s been really challenging not to know exactly where were are,” said Letitia Dzirasa, the Baltimore City health commissioner.
Dzirasa said that right before the data blackout, the city was beginning to see an increase in cases. “Right now we’re operating under the assumption based on what we know about hospitalizations and some of the information we’re hearing about outbreaks that cases are still rising and that that positivity likewise is elevated,” she said. "… I am under the assumption we are experiencing high community transmission.”
Kalyanaraman said not having case rates does make it harder to make decisions. However, he said, reports from schools and hospital data give him a sense of the picture.
“I wouldn’t say we’re flying blind,” he said. “Our vision is a little fuzzy.”