TRANSCRIPT: COVID-19 Press Conference April 10, 2020
GOVERNOR HOGAN: Good afternoon. Maryland now has 6,968 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the past three weeks, 171 Marylanders have lost their lives to this deadly virus. 1,413 patients have been hospitalized in Maryland with COVID-19, and 397 Marylanders have recovered and have now been released from isolation.
There are more than 13,000 cases in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and 331 people have died in the national capital region. The state of Maryland continues to marshal every tool in our arsenal to combat the spread of the coronavirus. A few days ago, I announced that we were forming strike teams composed of members of the National Guard, the Maryland institute for emergency medical services systems, local and state Health Departments, and doctors and nurses from hospital systems in order to bring triage, emergency care, supplies, and equipment to overburdened nursing homes. We are the first state in the nation to launch such a coordinated response effort. These strike teams have already been activated and have responded to situations in nine nursing homes across the state. They have also been deployed to 15 group homes for medically fragile children. And we are further expanding the reach of these strike teams to be able to assist assisted living facilities as well. We have increased testing at our state labs and private labs across the country have been steadily increasing their capacity and output. We’ve been very aggressively working to acquire more testing kits, not only from our federal partners but from every private sector company across America and from other companies around the globe.
In addition, we have invested 2 and a half million dollars in a joint partnership with the University of Maryland School of Medicine to provide the technology to launch a large-scale COVID-19 testing initiative, which will enable their labs to run up to 20,000 tests per day. Our Department of Transportation in coordination with FEMA is setting up a new decontamination site for personal protective equipment or PPE at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. This unique site will give us the ability to clean and sterilize up to 80,000 N95 respirator masks per day. As everyone knows, these masks are in very short supply worldwide. This newly developed technology will allow them to be reused, which will help protect our healthcare workers and those on the front lines while we await the new production and additional supply of PPE.
I want to thank the Trump Administration and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine for making Maryland one of the first states in America to receive one of these decontamination units, which are made by an Ohio-based company.
Today we are also launching COVID Connect, a new registry for Marylanders who have recovered from COVID-19. Each of the recovered coronavirus patients in Maryland has a story to tell and a role to play in our efforts to save lives and slow the spread of the coronavirus. We have invested $2 million in a joint partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Johns Hopkins to fund groundbreaking research into the potential therapeutic uses of COVID-19 convalescent plasma from recovered patients, which has the potential to save thousands of lives. The registry will also serve as a community platform to share experiences and lend support to others who are coping with the recovery process. We will also provide opportunities for these recovered patients to learn about potential research and clinical study opportunities which may contribute to scientific progress in the treatment of COVID-19 through vaccine testing or medication trials. To become part of this new registry, recovered coronavirus patients are encouraged to go to health.maryland.gov/COVIDconnect.
Obviously the spread of this deadly virus is wreaking havoc on our national and state economies, on small businesses and on struggling Americans and the people of our state. It is also having a dramatic impact on federal, state, and local government revenues. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot announced this morning that the state of Maryland is predicting potential revenue loss of up to $2.8 billion for the fiscal year 2020. This would represent a 50% decrease in revenues over the next 90 days and up to a 15% reduction in revenues for the fiscal year which ends on July 1.
In response, today we are taking the following actions: At my direction, the state is immediately instituting a budget freeze on all state spending across all state government agencies. The exceptions are COVID-19-related expenses and payroll necessary to support our employees. The state of Maryland is also instituting a hiring freeze effective immediately. The Maryland Department of Budget and Management will be determining options and making recommendations for budget cuts which will be required in all state agencies. This will include cuts to so-called mandated spend.
A few days ago we received 679 pieces of new legislation from the Maryland General Assembly. Many of these legislative proposals call for substantial increases in state spending. While the executive branch has not yet had any time to review any of this proposed legislation, I want to be clear that it is very unlikely that any bills that require increased spending will be signed into law.
In addition, the state will be tapping into and spending much of, perhaps even all of, the state’s rainy-day fund balance. Responding to this crisis will likely create a multiyear budget issue, which will require further substantial budget reduction actions. In addition to defeating this invisible enemy, this killer virus, and saving thousands of lives, there is nothing more important to me than getting our economy and our people back on their feet. To help hard-pressed Marylanders and small businesses get through this difficult period, we have created a $175 million program, small business relief program. We ramped up our unemployment insurance program to help employees and employers. Yesterday the Maryland Department of Labor reported that more than 108,000 new unemployment insurance claims have been filed in just the past week. In the past month, over 240,000 Marylanders have filed for unemployment benefits. That is more new claims than we received in all of 2019.
These are not just numbers. Each one of these represents a struggling Marylander who is experiencing real economic hardship right now. Processing such volume of unemployment claims at the same time is not a problem which is unique to Maryland. The federal government and every state is having issues handling the overwhelming caseload. In Maryland, however, over 95% of our citizens have been able to file their claims online without issue. There are still many people, however, who are unable to file online and are attempting to do so by phone. Because of the volume of up to thousands of calls per hour, people are having difficulty getting through on the phone lines. Even one unemployed Marylander not being able to be handled is completely unacceptable to me, which is why I directed the Maryland Department of Labor to use every resource at their disposal.
In addition, we are dedicating and detailing employees from other agencies, and I have activated the full weight of the state government to assist the Department of Labor in ensuring that all unemployed Marylanders, no matter how or when you file, will get the help that they need and that they will receive every single penny that they’re entitled to as quickly as is possible.
Three weeks ago we issued a proclamation which postponed the April 28 primary election to June 2. The State Board of Elections was tasked with developing a comprehensive plan to conduct the primary election in a way that preserves the integrity of the democratic process in our state, while also protecting public health. After considerable deliberation, the SBE voted to conduct the June 2 primary primarily through mail-in ballots. The Board of Elections also made the determination to make special accommodation with special polling places available for voters who are unable to vote by mail.
Today I have executed a proclamation ratifying those SBE decisions regarding the June 2 election. We are joining them in strongly urging every Marylander who can vote by mail to cast their ballot by mail. We understand that there are a small number of exceptions, including individuals without a fixed address and voters with special needs. We want to stress that in these rare cases where people must vote in person, significant social distancing practices must be implemented by the state and local election board officials. Elections are the very foundation of American democracy, and our ultimate goal must be to do everything possible to ensure that the voice of every Marylander is heard in a safe and secure manner.
Lastly, this is Passover week and preparation for Easter Sunday. I will miss sharing Easter with my kids and grandkids, seeing them hunt for Easter eggs. I particularly will miss not eating all of their Easter candy. It is currently unsafe to have church services or to host holiday gatherings, but we do want families to celebrate and enjoy the holidays in a safe way. For the kids out there who have been concerned, I want to offer some reassuring news: Today I am officially proclaiming the Easter Bunny as an essential worker in Maryland. He therefore will be able to proceed with his hopping across the state delivering Easter baskets to Maryland children.
There have been other times in our history that events and conflicts have prevented us from celebrating holidays in the way we are accustomed to. The way we celebrate this weekend will be very different, but that in no way should diminish the promise of Easter which celebrates a resurrection after a period of suffering and sacrifice. Easter really is a day of hope, which is something that all of us could desperately use right now. So this weekend, I ask all Marylanders, regardless of their faith, to reflect on that spirit of hope and to carry it forward in these difficult days and weeks ahead.
Now I will turn it over to our labor secretary, Tiffany Robinson, who will further discuss the efforts being undertaken to speed unemployment assistance to those who desperately need it. Thank you.
TIFFANY ROBINSON: Good afternoon. Thank you, Governor, for your leadership.
The Governor has directed our department to do everything possible to help Marylanders going through tough times right now, and that’s what I would like to address today. As nonessential businesses have closed to protect the health and safety of our citizens, our workforce are facing unimaginable difficulties. Unfortunately, unemployment has become a reality for many Marylanders. The Department of Labor does a lot of things, but right now I can assure you that we are all hands on deck to provide Marylanders with the financial support that they need.
Due to the sheer volume of claims, Marylanders are facing longer than usual wait times on our phone lines. I know that can be extremely frustrating. We have made and we continue to make numerous changes to accommodate this significant surge and to provide better customer service to Marylanders. We are adding additional servers to increase the speed and capacity of our online application which is 24/7. We are encouraging Marylanders to file their claims online and during off hours, like early in the morning and late at night. This part of our system is working very well. Since the beginning of March, over 95% of all new unemployment insurance claims have been filed online successfully and without issue. But we know some Marylanders are not able to file their initial claim entirely online, like federal employees or those have worked out of state. So we are diligently working to expand capacity of our online system even further, to give more claimants the option of filing online rather than having to file by phone.
As improvements are made to our system, messaging and instructions will be posted on our website at mdunemployment.com. This is also where Marylanders can file their claims online and get answers to their frequently asked questions, which are updated daily.
With 95% of all new claims filed online, what are we doing for those 5% of claimants who desperately need to reach us by phone? Our claim centers are currently not open to the public to prevent the health and safety of our customers and our staff, but those centers are fully operational, with extended hours from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday-Friday. Our teams are doing their very best to keep up with this unprecedented volume while giving each and every claimant the time and attention they deserve. To help spread out this large volume of phone calls, we’ve implemented a new filing procedure and encourage claimants to file on a certain day based on the first letter of their last name. This is helping to reduce wait times, but not enough. So starting after this holiday weekend, we will be offering additional Saturday hours to give Marylanders another day of the week when they can contact us by phone.
We’re also in the process of ramping up the size of our unemployment insurance team by temporary reassigning over 150 state employees and hiring additional contractual employees. We’re in the process of more than doubling our claim center staffing. This will ensure we can better serve our customers and reduce the backlog of phone calls. We realize that many Marylanders are filing for unemployment for the first time in their lives and that they have lots of questions and concerns. So we have created a dedicated email address at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is for those seeking answers to their questions without having to wait on our phone line. We’re adding staff to that response team in order to answer those questions for Marylanders as quickly as possible.
We also receive a lot of questions about the time line for payments. So I thought I would just answer that one for everyone today. Despite the volume of claims, most Marylanders are receiving their first benefit payment in less than 21 days. This first payment, which comes on a debit card, covers all weekly benefits back to a claimant’s date of eligibility. Since March 9, we’ve made over 215,000 payments totaling over 76 million in benefits for Marylanders. And by ramping up our unemployment insurance team, we look forward to reducing processing time and getting benefits paid even faster.
Finally, I would like to give an update on the expanded unemployment insurance benefits for Marylanders under the federal CARES Act. The Maryland Department of Labor opted to providing all three of the expanded programs offered to states under the CARES Act. Since recently receiving critical guidance for two of the three programs from the U.S. Department of Labor, we have been working around the clock to modify our existing mainframe system, train staff, and complete rigorous testing to ensure a smooth and successful implementation of these programs.
By the end of next week, we plan to begin implementation of the new federal pandemic unemployment compensation program, or what some are calling the $600 plus program. Everyone eligible for benefits ending the week of April 4 will begin receiving an additional $600 per week on top of current regular benefits. Please note that claimants will receive this additional $600 on the day they normally receive benefits. So while we’re rolling this out next week, Marylanders will begin to see an increase in their next regularly scheduled payment. Depending on when they’re determined to be eligible for benefits, Marylanders will receive all back pay that they are owed.
We are also partnering with a vendor to expedite and streamline the implementation of the other two programs under the CARES Act. The extended benefits program will allow us to pay Marylanders currently receiving benefits as well as newly approved claimants an additional 13 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits. We know many Marylanders are waiting for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, which will allow us to expand eligibility to those who are self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers, those who have insufficient work history, and more. These individuals can visit our website now and enter their email address to be notified directly as soon as this program is available.
I do want to emphasize again that all claimants will receive benefits retroactive to their earliest date of eligibility. This is true for both regular benefits and to the new benefit programs created under the federal CARES Act.
In closing, I would just like to provide a message for Marylanders accessing our services from the Department of Labor: We know how important it is to get you the benefits you need and deserve. We know what is at stake: Your family, your livelihood, your future. We do not take our responsibilities lightly, and we will do everything in our power to support you during these uncertain times. We are here for you, and we will get through this together.
Now I would like to turn it over to Fran Phillips from the Department of Health.
FRAN PHILLIPS: Thank you, Secretary Robinson and Governor Hogan.
A few remarks to highlight some of the remarks that the Governor made in connection with the go teams. These are the teams that have now been in operation for 72 hours across the state. I want to thank General Gowen and the National Guard for being tremendous partner with us in public health along with hospitals as well as the Maryland state emergency management service to put these teams together, so thank you, General.
The teams started on Wednesday, and the teams went in on Wednesday to a variety of group homes where, as the Governor said, there are some very, very vulnerable, very medically fragile children. This was a total of over 65 children were visited by these teams to assess, does the facility have all of the gear in place, all of the protective equipment, does the facility has the understanding of where to go if any of these children should begin to develop symptoms. What are the resources necessary for these homes.
Yesterday the teams branched out to nursing homes. Right now as we speak, again, today, those teams are around the state responding to nursing homes that have requested assistance or have been requested on behalf of local health departments. This is a tremendous asset to the residents of nursing homes, and I would like to characterize the teams three ways. Teams right now are doing assessments, looking, as I said, for resources and management capabilities, but there are other models in place that can be triggered if the need exists. If there’s needs to go in and do testing, widespread testing, whether of residents or staff, we have a testing model in place for these go teams. And then lastly, for direct care delivery. If there is a need to go on site to triage residents, to stabilize them, perhaps to begin some medical procedures or provide care that would not ordinarily be in the nursing home, to have that available on site and be able to go in mobilized very quickly with these care delivery teams. So again, it’s a partnership across the state and it focuses on our most vulnerable folks.
I want to shift gears a little bit and to talk to some other people, talk about some other people in Maryland who, as the Governor said, have now gone through that entire course of disease. These are people that have experienced COVID-19 disease, they have been confirmed, and they have gone through their entire experience and they’re now out the end. They have been released from isolation. By the end of the day today, we will have over 400 such people here in Maryland, and they have tremendous stories to tell. I’ve spoken directly to many of them, and they are tremendously relieved, first of all, and grateful for the care that they got and relieved that they too can celebrate this holiday weekend with their families. But what has been so striking is their interest in giving back, in sharing their experience to help other people who perhaps are experiencing isolation, helping them, the patients and their families, and also to be available for research studies as we begin to understand this new virus, to understand how we can test for it and ultimately how we can develop vaccines. So these 400 people and growing will now have the opportunity to come together on this registry, COVID Connect, that’s health.maryland.gov/covidconnect, and share their stories voluntarily and to be what we are calling public health champions based on their wonderful experiences.
Lastly, I’ll close with a reminder that we are in Maryland and across the world engaged in a holiday weekend, a holiday week, and the instincts, our history, is to come together in our families. This is going to be a very, very different year. So holiday, spring holiday in 2000, is one that is unbelievably different from the ones we’ve had in the past. I too will miss my children, my grandchildren, and I will miss their holiday candy, but I do share with them and I will share with them through Zoom and other video devices opportunities to connect, and also to remind them how sincerely grateful we are for this opportunity to come together as a state. And to share this memory. This will be a unique memory for all of us going forward.
GOVERNOR HOGAN: We would be happy to take a few questions.
(Question off mic).
I’ll let Fran Phillips address that.
FRAN PHILLIPS: Those test results all come in from various labs to the state Health Department, so on a daily basis, we get information on all of the positives, all of the negatives that are occurring in the state of Maryland. So what we’ve put on our website are individuals who are state residents by zip code — I’m sorry, not by zip code; we are getting to that point — but across the state, their confirmed status.
The second question that you had?
(Question off mic).
I’ll have to look at the data on that.
(Question off mic).
That’s a very good question, and I want to talk about that for a minute. It’s based on where the person lives, not where the test was done. So what is important to remember is that people travel even for essential services. So that a snapshot of where a particular case might be recorded is not necessarily comprehensive as far as where infection may occur within the state. Thank you.
(Question off mic)
GOVERNOR HOGAN: So this was a projection by the Comptroller, just came out today, based on a worst-case scenario over the next 90 days, but we’re going to be working together. Our budget office will be working together with the Comptroller’s office to figure out exactly what recommendations they’re going to make. We’ve only had a couple of hours to look at the projections, and I think he was looking at a worst-case potential scenario. Hopefully we will not have to make the kind of cuts that he was envisioning, but that’s certainly a possibility.
(Question off mic).
That’s a decision for the state superintendent of schools, not for me. But we have had some discussions. She is a part of many of our discussions on an almost daily basis. She talks with her school superintendents; she talks with the local school superintendents and with our Health Department. I think that is a decision that I’m sure they will make over the next couple of weeks. They’ll make that decision based on what they believe the health situation is and what they believe their ability to do distance learning. I don’t know about the comment that was reported in the paper about the fall, but I believe they will make a decision fairly shortly about what happens with the remainder of this spring semester.
(Question off mic).
I think there’s been really good cooperation between the District and the state of Virginia, the Commonwealth of Virginia, with the state of Maryland. We’ve had ongoing discussions between, just with the regional leaders, and they’ve also participated in all of my National Governors Association discussions, with the President, the Vice President. We’ve included Mayor Bowser in those discussions, although she’s not a governor and not a state, but we’ve included her as though she was. We’ve been in lots of discussions with the leaders in the region together, and I think while we may have had a little difference here and there about actions we may have taken or they’ve taken, I think there’s been tremendous cooperation between us.
I pushed very hard on behalf of the entire region at the federal level to try to get the Maryland, D.C., and Virginia region to be considered as an important focus and priority to talk about the Baltimore Washington corridor to be a hotspot, which included not just 12 of our Maryland jurisdictions but also the District of Columbia.
So I think we’ve been working well together. We’re not competing. We’re actually trying to work together as a region because I think it’s in our best interest. We all represent folks that live in one jurisdiction and work in another and they’re commuting back and forth.
Also, the Washington area that includes Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, not just the immediate Washington area, but the three states in their entirety, you know, we’re very important to the nation’s security. We have more than 400,000 federal workers in every single agency, and we’re important to the rest of the nation’s response.
(Question off mic).
What I just said was, the things that were excluded, we’re trying to protect all of our employees and we have COVID-related expenses, but this just came up like 2 hours ago, so the budget and management department will be making recommendations. There have been no discussions yet about specific cuts.
(Question off mic).
So, look. As I think Fran Phillips talked about it, everyone is looking at this. We are a couple weeks behind some of those other hotspots. If you look at our numbers, we are ramping up the curve. This is going to be one of our most dangerous times ever, this weekend. And over the next week or so. This will be the worst possible time for people to be violating executive orders and to be congregating together. Literally, you are taking your own life in your hands and you’re threatening the lives of others to do something like that. So as difficult as it is, particularly on a holiday weekend when people want to be together and people want to practice their faiths, they want to be at church and they want to be with family, it’s a really dangerous time to be doing it. We’re hopeful that people are going to be following the executive orders and, you know, local Health Departments and local governments are going to be trying try to enforce and keep people safe.
(Question off mic).
I’m not sure it’s a Band-aid, but it’s certainly part of the solution. It’s not the whole solution. I mean, this is the number one question in America today, is when will worldwide companies and companies across America be able to ramp up production fast enough to get enough PPE. It’s something we’re handling at a state level, and other states are trying to deal with. Every one of my fellow governors is talking about on every one of our so far 12 conference calls with all the governors. It’s what we hear about every single day at every press conference with the President and the Vice President. It’s the number one problem we have today, the lack of PPE.
(Question off mic).
It’s definitely not anywhere near where it needs to be, and we can’t put any numbers on it.
(Question off mic).
So we have put together, we’ve been meeting for weeks, on an ongoing basis. We had another call today with our coronavirus response team, made up of some really smart epidemiologists and public health doctors from some of our leading institutions here in Maryland, and they all have different models. There’s national models that everybody can go online and look at. All of our individual institutions have different modeling. It is not an exact science. It’s more of an art. But there are a lot of people looking at different variables.
I can tell you that the worst-case modeling was really terrible, and that’s why we took all these very early and aggressive actions. We believe that many of the actions that we took and that people are helping us take are having a real impact, and that we are very hopeful that our numbers on infections and on hospitalization rates and deaths are going to be much, much lower than they would have been, but we won’t know the complete impact of that until it actually happens.
We know we’re still heading up that curve, going uphill, but we don’t know how high the climb is going to be, how long it’s going to take to get there, or when it will level off. But the numbers were staggering had we not done anything. Now the question is how effective are all these things going to be. People staying home and continuing to do the social distancing is making a huge difference, and only time will tell how much of a difference it’s going to make.
(Question off mic).
Those kinds of details I think we’d have to address to the budget office, but it’s a freeze on all nonessential, nonemergency spending other than making sure that our state employees continue to be able to stay employed and feed their families and that we pay for these emergency expenses. I don’t want to nitpick about it. We’re not going to let somebody blow up or fall apart, but we’re not going to be spending on things that we could obviously push off or not do, any kind of excess spending that we wouldn’t have to do.
(Question off mic).
Actually I never talked about detailing anything. I just said that it was very unlikely that anything that had to do with spending would be signed into law.
(Question off mic).
On the ramping up of what?
We actually ramped up I think faster than just about anybody in America, and we upgraded our online capability three weeks ago, three and a half weeks ago.
I raised this issue with the President and the Vice President on a call with all the governors, saying that when our upgraded system, which was handling the claims, when you click through to the federal Department of Labor site, it crashed. So we got them to fix their system.
But no, there was no way to anticipate 240,000 claims in two weeks, and the fact that everybody would be trying to call on the phone at the same time. No one anticipated that, at the federal level or any state in America.
(Question off mic).
So far, two days ago I think, they sent us 679 bills. As I said, we have not looked at a single one. There is no one in the executive branch of government that will waste any time looking at any of those anytime soon. We have 30 days to do that. I just put everybody on notice today that it’s very unlikely that anything requiring additional spending will be considered to be signed into law.