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Baltimore hospital leaders beg public to help slow spread of omicron variant

UMMS health care worker Shawn Hendricks receives a COVID-19 vaccine.
University of Maryland Medical System
UMMS health care worker Shawn Hendricks receives a COVID-19 vaccine.

Mayor Brandon Scott gathered Baltimore’s top health officials and more than half a dozen local hospital leaders Wednesday to beg the public to slow the spread of the omicron variant, which is overwhelming local healthcare systems.

Get vaccinated, get tested, stay masked and stay distant, warned city health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.

“We expect there to be an intense phase of rapid virus spread that will require all of us to be more vigilant so that we don't overrun more hospitals, we decrease infection rates, we decrease risk of severe disease and subsequent hospitalizations,” she said.

Hospital officials said Sinai Hospital is in North Baltimore‘s COVID admissions have risen 825% in a month; the University of Maryland Medical System saw a 300% increase over the same time period.

“This is much broader than a COVID-19 problem, as it is limiting our ability to care for many other illnesses and surgical problems, from broken bones to asthma to heart problems,” said Dr. David Marcozzi, the pandemic incident commander for UMMS, at a news conference outside the War Memorial building. “And this is absolutely an avoidable problem if we all take the right measures right now.”

Though a ransomware attack on the Maryland Department of Health has made it difficult for local jurisdictions to track new cases, hospital trends show that there is a new wave of infections affecting Baltimoreans, Dzirasa said.

She said that the city’s COVID-related hospitalizations have grown by 185% over the last 4 weeks: hospitals are at 90% capacity in the ICU and 88% capacity in the acute care units.

Scott announced that he has directed Dzirasa to develop a recommendation for a vaccine passport – a form of proof that you've received COVID-19 vaccines. Unlike some municipalities, such as New York City, Baltimore restaurants and bars do not require patrons to show proof of vaccination. Further details will be announced later, Scott said.

“We are experiencing high community transmission and we have to do everything in our power, not just as the government and health care providers, but as a community to protect our residents, especially those at risk of severe illness,” he said.

The Democrat also announced that Rec and Parks sports programming will be suspended through the end of January.

The city’s indoor mask mandate has been in place since August, when Scott reinstituted it as the delta variant began to spread.

Kevin Sowers, the president of the Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said that one of the things different about this surge of COVID is that there aren’t as many people on the front lines to deliver care.

Hospitals across the nation are experiencing workforce shortages. On top of that, Johns Hopkins health care workers are now testing positive for COVID at a higher rate than previous surges.

The new infections are clustered in some units, including specialty units, and are impacting the system’s ability to provide care, he said.

“Hospitals across Maryland are really making sure that we appropriately manage our elective surgeries and procedures as we begin to respond to the surges in our community,” Sowers said. “We are doing surge plans, but I would say once again, it's very different than the first surge because of the workforce shortages.”

Marcozzi of UMMS said that residents should avoid going to emergency rooms unless they absolutely need to.

“If you have the ability to use a primary care physician, urgent care or seek telehealth, please do so,” he said. Each hospital leader, as well as Scott and Dzirasa, fell back on long-familiar advice: wash your hands frequently, wear well-fitting masks and take tests if you have any cold-like symptoms.

The region’s hospitalized COVID patients are largely unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, Dzirasa said.

Sowers said that 70% of the patients within Johns Hopkins Hospital that are COVID positive are unvaccinated. Another 30% have been vaccinated – but they are 148 days, on average, out from their last dose and have not received boosters, he said.

The trend is in line with CDC findings, which say that unvaccinated people are six times more likely to test positive than those that are vaccinated, nine times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from COVID-related complications.

“One patient told his care team before he passed away that he didn't believe in science and he never got vaccinated. The virus does not care if you do not believe in the virus or in science, and it doesn't care that the holidays are with us now,” said Rebecca Altman, VP and CIO for Life Bridge Health, which oversees Sinai Hospital and other medical centers. “We implore you as you celebrate together the holidays that you mask, you socially distance and you consider what you do as a family gathering.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.