Md. state of emergency helps hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients

Hospitals across Maryland are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that the governor declared a state of emergency to allow the National Guard to help and give health officials the power to restructure resources.

Hospitalizations have doubled in the last day, and more than 600 patients were waiting in the emergency waiting rooms for hours on Monday, said Dr. Ted Delbridge with Maryland’s Institute for Emergency Medical Service Systems.

Delbridge oversees the EMS reporting system where hospitals broadcast their status, and it’s what paramedics reference to decide where their patients can get the fastest care. Months ago, he told WTOP that the system was overloaded with increasing ambulance calls. Now, nearly every hospital in the state is on yellow alert.

“In doing so, they’re requesting the EMTs and paramedics take their patients to other facilities. Of course, that’s not possible when every nearby emergency department is also requesting no new patients,” Delbridge said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and issued two executive orders, one which allows the secretary of health the power to reallocate hospital resources.

“This executive order allows the Maryland Department of Health the authority to establish additional alternate care facilities to assist hospitals and nursing homes and addressing staffing shortages,” Hogan said. “The executive order allows interstate reciprocity for healthcare licenses. It allows inactive healthcare practitioners to practice without needing to reinstate their expired licenses, and it authorizes graduate nurses to work at any health care facility and to provide full nursing services. And the order allows for healthcare practitioners to practice outside the scope of their licenses.”

It also allows hospitals to stop elective procedures while they are overwhelmed with emergency patients.

“Our newest projections as of today show that COVID hospitalizations could reach more than 5,000, which would be more than 250% higher than our previous peak of 1,952 last year. While we are hoping for the best, we are actively preparing for the worst,” Hogan said.

Dr. Ann Burke, vice president of medical affairs at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, called the health care emergency a “very needed step.”

“The reason it is needed is it allows and supports the acute care facilities to take some difficult actions that may be needed in order for us to continue to provide urgent and emergent services to patients,” Burke said.

Adding to the surge in patients in the ERs, Delbridge said, are patients who are seeking a COVID-19 test or experiencing a non-emergency that could be handled at urgent care or doctor’s offices.

“Rapid antigen tests are reliable, especially if the test result matches the situation. There is no need to double-check. For example, if you have a cough and a fever and your test is positive, you have COVID-19. Stay home to be evaluated because of a positive test. Unless you are short of breath, most people can take care of themselves at home. If you’re higher risk, touch base with your primary care provider,” he said.

Emergency personnel at Holy Cross have seen patients flood the emergency room seeking testing or help with a non-life-threatening injury.

“It is an issue… We have had to institute a policy of not performing COVID testing simply for the indication of testing, but only utilizing those emergency resources when the individual is symptomatic,” Burke said.

Hours after Hogan explained how difficult the next 4-6 weeks would be in navigating the winter surge of COVID-19 cases, Burke offered her experience to put the current situation into perspective:

“We have been at this for almost two years now. And this current surge is worse than any we have seen to date, especially in just the numbers and volume of patients. Thank goodness, we do see the protective effect of vaccination in that fewer patients as an overall percentage requiring critical care…But the overall volume and number of patients is a spike that we have not seen to date,” she said.

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Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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