Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are sounding a note of caution about potential plans to begin easing some coronavirus-related restrictions in the state as early as next week.
With more than 8,800 confirmed cases and 217 deaths, the county remains among the areas in Maryland hardest hit by the coronavirus. The death rate alone means an average of nine people are dying each day from the virus, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a news conference Friday.
Meanwhile, hospitals in the county are continuing to experience a “surge” in COVID-19 patients, according to the health department.
“This is … the leading cause of death in Prince George’s County. So that is serious, and we’re going to treat it that way,” Alsbrooks said.
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Earlier this week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that on a statewide level, serious cases of COVID-19 involving hospitalizations and intensive care beds appeared to be plateauing — a trend which, if it held steady, could indicate the state could begin easing some restrictions soon.
When asked by reporters if Prince George’s County would be ready, Alsobrooks said: “We’ll do what we can. But we’re going to also make decisions that are specific and tailored to the challenges that we have met here in Prince George’s, because we already know this virus has impacted us in a unique way.”
Prince George’s County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter was even more blunt when he addressed questions about whether the county was ready for a phased reopening.
“We won’t be ready as long as we have increasing daily COVID positive cases,” he said. “If they’re increasing, then we’re not flattening.”
Carter said the governor is making decisions for the state, but that local authorities need to weigh different factors.
“He relies on us to make those decisions,” Carter said. “He relies on the county exec to make smart decisions … We’re making decisions that are consistent with what he would do if he were in our situation.”
Carter said hospitals in the county have faced a “surge of COVID patients” going back at least a month, and it’s not showing signs of letting up.
As of Friday, there were 256 coronavirus patients in the county’s hospitals — up from 125 patients a month ago, he said.
“ICU bed capacity is still a concern,” Carter said.
In the last week, 4 out of 5 hospitals in the county were using more than 70% of their current ICU capacity. Overall, the last two weeks have seen a 53% increase in COVID patients in acute care in the county’s hospitals, he added.
“Prince George’s County needs to move forward with caution,” Carter said. “If we move too quickly, our numbers will start to rise again, and we’ll have to scale back — I want to avoid that.”
Other ER visits ‘alarmingly low’
At the same time hospitals are continuing to see a surge in COVID-19 patients, Alsobrooks said she is concerned that other emergency room visits are “alarmingly low.”
“The concern is that there are a good number of individuals who need to be in the emergency room or in the hospital for non-COVID-related illnesses who are afraid to go to the hospital,” she said.
Alsobrooks said she has heard of residents suffering heart attacks and other ailments who put off seeking care.
“We’re having people die from other illnesses because they are waiting too late to go to the emergency room,” she said, adding, “if you’re experiencing a medical emergency, please don’t let COVID-19 stop you from getting the critical care that you need.”
Prince George’s Co. still looking to acquire test kits
Alsobrooks said the county is continuing efforts to obtain more test kits and build its team of contact tracers.
Last month, in a high-profile announcement, Hogan announced the purchase of 500,000 test kits from South Korea to be used to boost the state’s testing capacity.
Alsobrooks, who praised the state’s efforts to assist the county, said she requested 90,000 of the test kits for Prince George’s County.
“The governor assured me that they will do everything they can to make sure that tests reach us and that we will be prioritized,” she said. But so far, the county has not received any of them.
“As they say, ‘God bless the child who has his own,’” Alsobrooks said, adding that she has worked with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich to procure additional test kits and is working on plans to open additional testing centers in both the northern and southern parts of the county.
Right now, the county is testing about 5,000 people a week and is building the capacity to test 10,000.
But even that might not be enough. “We need to be testing in the neighborhood of probably close to 15,000 individuals per week,” Alsobrooks said, citing the advice of the county’s health officer.
In addition, she said her administration is working on opening a county-run quarantine facility that would provide a place for residents to go to avoid transmitting the disease to other members of their households.
The facility will be at a repurposed hotel in the county. Alsobrooks said county planners are still developing estimates for how many people it will be able to temporarily house, she said.
In order to qualify for a spot in the facility, residents have to be tested at the health department. A nurse will then make the determination whether they can safely isolate at home or whether they need to go to the quarantine facility.
Residents who live in a household with someone age 65 or older, who have a chronic medical condition, will be eligible for the county facility. Residents of the facility will be provided with core services, which includes, food, access to medications, social services and transportation for medical care as needed.
Also, the county will begin taking applications this coming Monday for emergency rental assistance to provide temporary rent and utility payments up to $1,800 a month for up to three months.
Applicants must be at or below 80% of median income in the county and at risk of losing housing, Alsobrooks said. The county has committed $4 million from the federal CARES Act to support the rental-assistance program.