Frederick, Montgomery and Washington county residents Thursday evening questioned Rep. David Trone (D-Dist. 6) about how the area’s health care systems are handling the recent spike of COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant, the availability of higher-protection masks and of at-home testing kits.
Joined by a panel of local health, housing and policy experts, Trone and his team sought to provide guidance in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus in the state.
Maryland has reported more than 89,000 new cases in the past week, the congressman noted.
Frederick County reported 505 new COVID cases and one related death Saturday. Since the state of the pandemic, 428 people in the county have died from the virus.
Frederick Health’s COVID dashboard on Saturday showed there were 106 people hospitalized with COVID, 15 of whom were in intensive care.
“I know that most of you are feeling lost, confused, anxious, frustrated, and some are even experiencing grief for the loss of a loved one,” Trone said. “We want to make your life easier, if we can, by answering your questions and providing the resources needed to keep you and your family safe.”
Health Officer Earl Stoner from the Washington County Health Department warned that although the new variant appears to be less concerning, the number of hospitalizations may continue to rise and possibly equal that of delta due to omicron’s high level of transmission.
“When you factor in potentially quadruple, maybe an even higher number of individuals that are becoming infected, just the sheer number of individuals that are going to need care out of that could possibly equal what we saw with delta,” said Stoner.
The health officer compared omicron to a “California wildfire” spreading rapidly, especially among unvaccinated individuals.
Trone said about 80 percent to 85 percent of people hospitalized in Washington County are unvaccinated, causing local hospitals to reach their “breaking point” with the number of patients seeking health care.
Bob Atlas, president and CEO at the Maryland Hospital Association, advised that those with more severe symptoms requiring immediate attention such as shortness of breath, chest pain or loss of consciousness visit the emergency room, while others with less severe symptoms go to urgent care centers.
A Brunswick resident asked the panel to clarify the difference between patients who are receiving care due to COVID and those who are receiving treatment for other health issues while COVID positive.
“The way they look at it is that it doesn’t really make a difference,” said Atlas. “The care that people need is basically the same intensity and requires the same resources.”
Atlas said the regional health district has 117 ICU beds, and only seven are going unoccupied at the moment, with half used for COVID patients and half for other care.A Rockville resident asked about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent statement encouraging Americans to wear the “highest quality mask that you can tolerate.”
Stoner said the “best bet” is wearing an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask, all of which offer higher protection than cloth masks.
“Definitely, definitely upgrade,” Stoner said. “Your cloth masks, at this point, are better than nothing, but really people should not be wearing cloth masks at this time.”
Marylanders will be able to receive N95 and KN95 masks next week at no cost through the Maryland Health Department, according to an announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday. Local health departments, vaccination sites and others will help the department distribute 20 million masks, Hogan said.
A Potomac physician asked for an update on at-home testing kits, saying people are “complaining that they can’t get tested” or have to wait in long lines.
Stoner suggested visiting the Maryland Department of Health’s website to find county-level distribution of tests. He said most counties are partnering with local libraries to issue tests.
A Rockville health care worker said she’s concerned about the state of nursing homes.
“We on the hospital side are taking great care not to send patients back to nursing homes who might spread infections, which, of course, is challenging for our hospitals because we need to free up beds,” Atlas said. “There’s awareness and an interest in making sure that our nursing homes and the people who work there are well protected.”
Trone encouraged community members to educate themselves on vaccines and other public safety measures to stay healthy.
“I work for you,” said Trone. “We all work for you, and we’re in this together as Team Maryland to get through this COVID tragedy.”