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COVID-19 causing "dire" situation for Baltimore County's hospitals

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and local health leaders at a Towson news conference said COVID-19 is overwhelming hospitals.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and health officials hold a news conference to urge people to get vaccinated. Credit: Baltimore County

Leaders of hospitals in Baltimore County painted a dire picture Monday of vanishing available beds and exhausted health professionals.

They begged those who are not vaccinated or boostered to act now to help stop what is a preventable spike of COVID-19 cases.

A family of three adults recently came to Northwest Hospital’s emergency room, according to hospital president Craig Carmichael. All three had COVID and were unvaccinated.

“The husband was discharged,” Carmichael said. “However, the mother and the daughter still remain within our ICU and are on a vent. Our COVID patients ask ‘can we get a vaccine’ when they’re in the hospital. Our simple answer: it’s too late.”

Carmichael said 80% of the COVID patients at the Randallstown hospital Saturday were unvaccinated. On Sunday, it was 90%.

Speaking at a news conference in Towson, Carmichael and other health professionals laid out the cost of people not getting vaccinated. Their facilities and employees are being overwhelmed.

Dr. Gail Cunningham, the Chief Medical Officer at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, said this is not just a COVID issue. It’s affecting all types of health care.

“After 30 years of being in the ER, I’ve never seen waits like we’re seeing right now, 8, 10, 12, 14 hour waits to be seen for non-COVID problems and COVID problems,” she said.

She said people should not use emergency rooms for minor problems. Use urgent care or call your doctor.

Cunningham said when the COVID pandemic began nearly two years ago, hospitals had a robust workforce. Now they are exhausted and understaffed.

“We’re seeing 30 to 40% vacancy rates across our hospitals, so there simply aren’t enough people to take care of all the people who are coming in,” Cunningham said.

Dr. Stuart Levine, the President of Medstar Franklin Square Medical Center in Rossville, said this surge of COVID-19 is the one that didn’t need to happen. He said it can still be blunted if people get vaccinated, get a booster and continue to wear masks indoors.

Levine said Franklin Square has cared for and discharged nearly 3,000 COVID patients during the pandemic.

“To the compassionate caregivers who have accomplished these amazing feats, these patients aren’t numbers,” Levine said. “Each is a person with a name, a family, a life. And they are tired of watching these patients struggle to breathe, decompensate, and yes, sometimes die day after day and now year after year.”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski says Monday’s news conference was to put out the word that the situation is dire.

“Alarmingly, there are only 14 staffed ICU beds currently available in Baltimore County,” Olszewski said. “And the worst is likely still to come.”

On Monday, the state released partial COVID numbers for the first time since a cyberattack forced it to shut down its tracking site. They show a surging positivity rate of more than 10%. That’s nearly twice what it was when it was last reported December 3.

With holiday traveling and gatherings quickly approaching, Baltimore County Health Officer Dr. Gregory Branch laid out some dos and don’ts.

For starters, when you wear a mask indoors, wear it correctly.

“Wear it around your nose and your mouth tightly,” Branch said. “Not under your nose.”

He said avoid large gatherings. It’s much safer to have small get-togethers with family and friends you know are fully vaccinated and are boostered. And he has a suggestion if you are looking for a last-minute Christmas gift.

“The choice is simple this year,” Branch said. “If you have not already done so, give your family and friends the lifesaving gift of your vaccination. If a loved one you know is not yet vaccinated, encourage them to give you the life-saving gift of vaccination.”

Dr. Cunningham called on Baltimore County to put back in place mask mandates.

In a statement, Olszewski spokesman Sean Naron said the county executive currently does not have the authority to reinstate a mask mandate. Olszewski and the county council lifted the state of emergency that gave him that authority. Naron said county officials will continue to consider all options in the coming days and weeks.

Governor Hogan said Monday he had tested positive for COVID, even though he is fully vaccinated and had received a booster.

Health officials said breakthrough infections can happen. But they are usually mild and infrequently lead to something more serious.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2