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The Office of GOVERNOR LARRY HOGAN

Transcript: October 1 Press Conference

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Joining me today are Dr. Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, and Dr. Jinlene Chan, the acting Deputy Secretary for public health services at the Maryland Department of Health.

Nearly a month ago, on September 4th, as a result of our early and aggressive actions and our successful mitigation efforts, Maryland was able to safely enter stage 3 of our Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery, and all businesses in the state of Maryland were able to open.

Since then we have continued to see improving trends with our health metrics.  Our statewide positivity rate is now down to 2.88%, which is a decline of nearly 90% since it peaked at 26.91% 167 days ago on April 17th.  Maryland’s positivity rate has now been under 5%, which is the benchmark set by the World Health Organization and the CDC, for 98 consecutive days, since June 25th.  It has been under 4% for 54 consecutive days, since August 8th.  We have zero counties in the red zone, which is designated by the federal government.  All 24 jurisdictions in the state of Maryland have positivity rates below 5%.  21 of them are under 4%.  14 jurisdictions are under 3%, including Baltimore City.  4 of them are under 2%.  And we even have two jurisdictions that are now having positivity rates less than 1%.

Hospitalizations are down more than 80% since they peaked 167 days ago at 1,711.  And we have seen a nearly 88% decline in ICU levels since they peaked 144 days ago on May 10th.

We have also seen a continued and sustained drop in the cases per 100,000, which has dropped 55% since it peaked 147 days ago on May 7th.

And today the state of Maryland is reporting zero coronavirus deaths for the first time in 187 days since March 28.

Earlier this week we convened the 25th meeting of our coronavirus recovery team, which includes some of the top doctors and public health experts in the nation.  We discussed additional measured data-driven steps to continue to move forward with our safe, effective, and gradual reopening plans.  This included steps to help our seniors in Maryland nursing homes return to some sort of normalcy.

This spring, per states across the nation, nursing homes became ground zero in the fight against COVID-19.  And Maryland was one of the first states in America to issue strong guidelines to state nursing home facilities to restrict access to visitors, to institute strict infection control protocols and limit all staff travel in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens.

We further bolstered mitigation and suppression efforts at Maryland nursing homes, directing all staff who interact with residents to wear personal protective equipment, and we then launched statewide strike teams which became an example for the rest of the nation to bring triage, emergency care, supplies, and equipment to overburdened nursing homes.

We were also one of the first states in the nation to require universal testing for nursing home residents and staff.  Today the state of Maryland has provided nearly $102 million in emergency funding for testing and PPE at Maryland nursing homes.  Through the bipartisan interstate testing compact, which I put together and announced recently, we have secured 250,000 rapid antigen tests which will make it even easier to detect any potential cases in as little as 15 minutes, enabling us to quickly screen residents, staff, and visitors.

By next week, working in conjunction with our federal partners, all 227 Maryland nursing homes are on track to receive their initial allocations of rapid testing supplies.

With our successful mitigation efforts underway, back in June, just ahead of Father’s Day weekend, limited outdoor visitation at Maryland nursing homes was authorized.  And today, effective immediately, as a result of new federal and state guidelines and our advances in rapid testing, indoor visitation is now able to begin in all nursing homes that are not experiencing a current outbreak or that have not experienced any new positive cases in the last 14 days.

In accordance with new federal guidelines, indoor visitation would not be permitted if the local jurisdiction’s positivity rate rises above 10%.  This new federal policy and our new state efforts allow for more flexibility for compassionate care visits to support residents who need emotional and spiritual support.

We’ve already provided $37 million to nursing homes for testing.  We will continue to provide PCR molecular testing for nursing homes.  But today we are also committing an additional $6 million specifically for testing of nursing staff, utilizing our state testing resources.

We also want to remind Marylanders that the beginning of fall and the changing weather marks the beginning of flu season.  The First Lady and I have already gotten our flu shots, and I want to again strongly encourage all Marylanders to do the same.  The flu vaccine is the most effective way to prevent flu disease.  To get your flu shot, you should go to your doctor, your local pharmacy, or you can call your local Health Department.

The confluence of COVID and the flu has required a change in our strategies for the fall.  Over the last month, we worked to transition our signature lab at the University of Maryland Baltimore to allow for the use of a CDC-developed multiplex assay test, which is able to detect both COVID-19 and types A and B of the flu.  Our hospital surge team is doing contingency planning for any potential flu and/or COVID surge, and to learn more, Marylanders can visit health.maryland.gov/flu.

There continues to be broad consensus that getting children safely back into the classrooms must remain a top priority.  For many, there’s simply no substitute for in-person instruction.  35 days ago I announced that as a result of our improved health metrics across the state, every county school system in the state of Maryland was fully authorized to begin safely opening for in-person instruction.  A month ago on September 1st, the state Board of Education voted to require the eight school systems that had not submitted any plan for returning any students for any in-person instruction for the entire year to go back and revise their reopening plans.

As of today, all 24 jurisdictions have complied with MSDE requirements and have submitted plans to resume at least some in-person instruction.

Dr. Salmon and I also announced last week that all schools can resume sports next week.  With the great progress we’re making on our health metrics and our strong economic recovery with all businesses open and people returning to work, MSDE has been working hard on plans to safely expand childcare, and I want to sincerely thank all of the parents, childcare providers, teachers, and staff for their hard work to adapt to very difficult circumstances in recent months in order to keep our children healthy, safe, and learning.

I’ll now turn it over to state superintendent of schools, Dr. Karen Salmon, for an important announcement regarding childcare in Maryland.

KAREN SALMON:  Thank you, Governor.  

It’s good to be with you all today.

Early in September, as the Governor previously said, he announced that Maryland had entered the initial phase of stage 3, and the week prior as a result of improved COVID-19 health metrics, we announced that every local school system in Maryland is authorized to begin reopening for in-person learning.

Thankfully, our COVID-19 metrics in Maryland remain in a very positive position, and we encourage local school systems to bring students back safely for in-person instruction in light of those numbers.

For the last 6 months, capacity limits had been in place for childcare providers as a mitigation tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  In working with the Maryland Department of Health, we have seen very few positive COVID cases in our childcare facilities, likely due to the rigorous health and safety guidance implemented by the childcare community from the beginning of the pandemic.

I want to also thank the childcare providers, the teachers and staff, for their dedicated service to our children and families.  They are certainly heroes.

When the capacity limit for childcare programs was increased in June from 10 to 15 individuals per room, the state did not see a spike in cases within childcare programs, even as more providers reopened their facilities.

At this time, more than 82% of childcare providers have reopened.  However, with most school systems remaining in a period of virtual learning or a hybrid model, we understand that the demand for available childcare remains very high.  Therefore, today I am announcing that childcare providers are now able to return to the full teacher to child ratios and capacities for which they are licensed.  Today’s announcement means that childcare centers can now serve up to 20 three- and four-year-olds in a room with a ratio of one teacher to ten students, and up to 30 school-age students with a ratio of one teacher to fifteen students.  Of course childcare providers must adhere to health and safety protocols as they have successfully done to this point.  Hopefully this action will assist in limiting the many unregulated and illegal childcare providers and operators that have sprung up in recent months as pandemic pods where there are no criminal background checks, no oversight, and parents cannot be sure that their children are in a safe environment.

Licensed childcare programs interested in reopening may contact the licensing specialist at the Maryland State Department of Education, and parents and guardians in need of childcare may contact “locate childcare” at (877)261-0061 or through the “locate” website on the Maryland State Department of Education web page.

Reopen programs will receive a one-time grant of $800 for family care providers and 1600 for center-based childcare providers.  These grants will be available through October 31st of this year.

Maryland State Department of Education is also providing $1,000 in startup grants to eligible new family home care providers in an effort to bolster new small businesses.  We’ve heard very clearly from parents and providers who have written and called me that we needed to return to licensed capacity to meet the needs of working families and prevent the closure of childcare centers once it could be done safely.  I am very hopeful this announcement effectively complements the efforts of schools to bring students back into the classroom to give families more safely access to childcare programs.

Thank you.

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  Thank you, Dr. Salmon.

With that, we would be happy to take a couple of questions.

Okay.  Nobody has any.  

I almost got out of it.

[Laughter]

Yes.  Please.

(Question off mic)

KAREN SALMON:  We still have childcare subsidies so anybody at certain income levels is still eligible to receive a supplement that goes right to the childcare provider.

(Question off mic).

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  Well, obviously we are looking at, planning for, and trying to prevent and mitigate against a potential surge in the fall, but as I mentioned, it’s why we pushed so hard to get the rapid testing, it’s why we’ve transitioned our lab, it’s why we’re doing surge planning in the worst eventuality because it’s not something we’re not concerned about.  The Health Department, we are having talks about this on an ongoing basis with a lot of experts, but we ran it by our whole coronavirus recovery team and they believe some of the actions we can take because of our great metrics.  We’re doing better than most states across the country, much better as the nation as a whole.  We have a great team of people making smart decisions, and thanks to the people in Maryland who have been very vigilant and listening to all the great public health advice.  So I wouldn’t say we’re not concerned about a potential problem in the fall, but right now our health metrics could not possibly be any better.

(Question off mic).

Well, I think there’s a difference between teachers and the community, because we’ve been visiting schools all across the state where teachers are back in public schools and they are teaching kids.  And the teachers are very enthused and excited to be back in there with their kids.  And I hear from teachers every day who are dying to get back to class.

But the union obviously has taken a pretty strong position that in many cases they don’t want to go back, really ever, until this whole thing is gone and until there’s a vaccine.  That’s a pretty strong position.  But many in the state do not agree with that position.  We’re very pleased because the state Board of Education taking action and because of us continuing to push some of these local leaders that they have now also made plans to bring at least some kids back in the classroom instead of refusing to even submit a plan.

But we still have progress to make.  By law, the local counties have the right to make these decisions.  They have a duly elected or appointed school board.  And we can and won’t usurp their authority, but based on the health metrics, based on both the Health Department and the State Department of Education, there is really no excuse for not trying to bring kids back.

(Question off mic).

Well, I’m concerned about our restaurant operators, our small businesses, as they’ve been one of the most impacted businesses.  And that’s why we worked so hard to get increased capacity and for both indoor and outdoor dining.  There’s no question as it gets colder, the options for outdoor dining will be less.

At this point, although in Baltimore City, they have not moved along as quickly as the state.  Most of the jurisdictions have 75% capacity restaurants.  I can tell that you most of the polling shows that a large majority of people do not want to go back and eat at a restaurant.  So it’s not so much a restriction or an order; it’s just that until there’s a vaccine, some people are not going to go.  Our Health Department has put out terrific guidance and provided flexibility, plexiglass dividers between booths, increased capacity.  But we can’t make people go back to the restaurants.  If we do everything we can to help these businesses, but in Baltimore City, I think we’ll be losing more than anywhere else because they kept them at 25% capacity, didn’t let people inside, and the businesses just can’t hang on.  So we’re encouraging the city to catch up with the rest of the state.

(Question off mic).

JINLENE CHAN:  So actually what we are saying in the school setting is that testing as a screening tool for schools for students and staff is not needed.  The CDC does not recommend that in a K-12 setting.  So schools that have been using it may have implemented that policy.

When you look the appoint of care testing, one of the things that Governor Hogan is rolling out today in conjunction with the test that the state has been able to procure in conjunction with the testing equipment and supplies that the federal government has provided for nursing homes, they will be able to use those point of care tasks as part of their staff testing strategy, the routine weekly or monthly testing.

(Question off mic).

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  So we don’t have any problem whatsoever with the LabGenomics test.  We have successfully used more than a quarter million of them without a single case of a false positive.  Not one.

As I mentioned in my remarks earlier, we had discussions for more than a month to convert our UMB lab which we built over to the combined assay test which tests for the flu, which is I think what UMB told you.

We’re continuing to use thousands of them every single day at our other labs, and we’re now converting over our state lab to do more of them.  All the tests we’re providing to these nursing homes and all the things we announced today, the rapid test is one thing.  We still have to do the diagnostic test, and we will be using for all of those things that I mentioned the LabGenomics test which we do not have a problem with.

(Question off mic).

There are no problem whatsoever.  No issues.  We’ve used a quarter million of them.  We don’t know what happened with those three nursing homes.  UMB put out a statement saying it could be any one of ten different reasons, collection samples were bad, somehow somebody touched something or — nobody has said there’s a problem with the test.

(Question off mic).

  Not quite half.  Maybe about 40%.  I think we’ve done close to 270,000.  We’ve said we wanted them to last through the fall.  Now we’re switching.  We have a new test coming in so we now have the flu test, but we’re going to continue to use them, and I think through the fall, hopefully we’ll be utilizing all of them.

SPEAKER:  Last question.

(Question off mic).

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  What a great diverse question.  Our economic numbers?  Yeah, we were very pleased that our revenue numbers are better than was projected by the comptroller earlier, and the good news is we took some aggressive budget cutting actions at the Board of Public Works, my colleagues and I unanimously took some actions earlier that will help put our budget in good shape.

On the revenue side, because we were able to keep 77% of the economy open during the crisis — many states were not, they shut down again and again — 98% of our economy has been open since June and now 100% of businesses.  Our revenues are much better.  We’ve added 180,000 jobs in a couple of months.  Our unemployment rate is better than most of the country and other states.  That’s provided revenue which is a great thing.  We’re very pleased with.

However, it does not solve the budget crisis for next year.  We will still be about $1 billion short.  It’s really good news but doesn’t completely make that a rosy picture.

I’m sorry, I forgot the second half.  Yeah, I thought it was a train wreck, and it was just out of control.  I could barely watch it.  You know, it’s what I’ve tried to avoid for the past 6 years, the kind of divisiveness.  I don’t think anyone who was undecided watching that debate could decide this is why I’m going to vote for this person.

(Question off mic).

They shouldn’t be terrified.  We’re making great progress on the purple line.  After 20 years of inaction, I finally got it moving.  Our construction is well underway.

Unfortunately, there were citizen lawsuits that delayed the project for 2 years, and that cost about $800 million.

The construction firm that was doing the purple line is having some serious financial difficulties and they’ve had problems across the country with a number of their contracts.  They are also sued for overcharging.  They were trying to gouge taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars that we didn’t feel was adequate.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is, we are going to continue to move forward.  We have a whole group of great construction companies that want to finish the job.  The state is going to finish the job.  There may be a delay as we switch over, but it’s much better than having an operator not getting the job done that’s overcharging the taxpayers.

So we’re still in negotiations to figure out exactly what the solution will be.  I can tell you that I believe that the banks that were ready to foreclose on this operator I think have reached forbearance for 30 days so their financial situation is desperate.  We’re hoping, and I think they directed them to come back and negotiate with us.  If there’s a possibility of solving the serious dispute with this firm.  That’s a possibility.  But if not, we don’t have much more time to waste.  We won’t move forward without it.

All right.  Thank you.