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The Office of GOVERNOR LARRY HOGAN

Transcript: February 23 Press Conference

GOVERNOR HOGAN: Good afternoon.  Joining me from the Department of Health are Secretary Dennis Schrader and Deputy Secretary for Public Health, Dr. Jinlene Chan.  It has been one year and after a long and difficult year, we approach this anniversary knowing that our early and aggressive actions, the on‑going vigilance of Marylanders and now the on‑going availability of a safe and effective vaccine are continuing to bring us closer to a return to normalcy.

The encouraging news is that we continue to see significant improvement in all of our COVID‑19 metrics.  In the past seven weeks, the positivity rate has dropped by 58 percent to 3.90 today, the lowest level since October 31st.  Case rate per 100,000 has dropped dramatically by 76 percent to 12.8, also to its lowest levels since late October.  COVID hospitalizations have dropped by 50 percent from nearly 2,000 last month to 978.  This decline in hospitalizations is consistent across all regions of the state.  The number of nursing homes with active COVID cases has dropped by 47 percent to the lowest level since mid‑October.

But sadly, we have now lost more than 500,000 Americans to COVID‑19, including 7,580 Marylanders.  We mourn each and every one of them and we continue to pray for their families.

Even as our key metrics continue to decline, we do remain concerned and are working very closely with officials to monitor the new variants of the virus which have reached our shores.  While the variants have not known to cause more severe illness, they do tend to be more contagious.  So it is critically important that we stay ahead of them by aggressively testing, tracing and quarantining.

Our state public health laboratory has been testing for the variant at a much higher rate than other states, using sequencing to track the mutations of the virus including the U.K., South African and Brazilian variant, all of which we have identified here in our state in recent weeks.  I’m asking today that in order to expand this screening capacity, the state has just entered into agreement with both the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University which will increase our state coronavirus sequencing volume by more than 100 percent.  This enhanced capacity will enable us to stream and sequence over 10 percent of all COVID‑19 cases, giving Maryland one of the strongest surveillance programs in America.  300 percent more than the nation as a whole and if Maryland were a country, it would rank as sixth in the world.  In terms of percent of cases being sequenced.

Dr. Chan is going to discuss this in more detail in a few moments.  The presence of the variants makes it even more clear that the global vaccination campaign is a race between vaccines and variants.  The state’s vaccination rate has continued to rise every day and we’ve now administered more than 1.1 million vaccines including more than 200,000 in just the last seven days, even with a winter storm and delays in federal shipments.  Providers have administered 99.6 percent of all of the doses we have received from the federal government.  The state is averaging 29,906 shots per day which is far more than we are currently receiving and nearly 1,000 percent increase over the last eight weeks.

Every nursing home resident and employee in Maryland has been given access to a vaccine.  Vaccination clinics at assisted living facilities are nearly complete and clinics at other independent living facilities are underway.

The state’s vast vaccination sites are administering vaccines to residents to all 24 of the state’s jurisdictions.  Another milestone with the opening of a 55,000 square foot mass vaccination site at M and T Bank Stadium.  They will utilize nearly 300 personnel daily including pharmacists, nurses and nurse practitioners.  The first 10,000 appointments have been scheduled for the site which, as of next week, will be administering 2,000 shots per day with the capacity to do thousands more per day as it increases.

I want to thank all of our partners including the Maryland Department of Health, Maryland National Guard, University of Maryland Medical System, the stadium authority and the Baltimore Ravens for their effort.  The fourth vaccination site will open in southern Maryland at the Blue Crabs’ Stadium in Charles County in the next couple of weeks.  At the state’s request, the southern Maryland vaccination site will be supported by FEMA which has agreed to provide more than 100 personnel including trained vaccinators to staff the site and provide technical assistance.

I want to thank President Biden, the COVID White House coordinator and the entire team at FEMA for their support along with the Charles county regional Medical Center which has agreed to be the center for this site.  The Maryland site will be capable of administering thousands of shots per day as soon as supplies become available.  In addition, we will be opening mass vaccination sites on the eastern shore and in western Maryland in the coming weeks.

We’re also launching a statewide appointment preregistration system for all of the state’s mass vaccination sites.  These sites will continue to be supplemented by hundreds of pharmacies, hospitals, local health departments and federally‑qualified health centers and other providers at clinics all across the state.  As part of the expanding statewide network that now includes 2,366 distribution sites. Following both the federal and state vaccination plan, we continue to broaden the distribution network to ensure as many points of access as possible in every single county.  We are utilizing every single dose we’re allocated and building an infrastructure with the capability of doing up to 100,000 shots per day.  Just as soon as they’re made available, they’re made by the manufacturers and allocated to us by the federal government.

In every state, every city and every county in America, they currently have the same problem.  There simply aren’t enough vaccines.  People all across America, very rightfully so are frustrated that they cannot get a vaccine, they can’t get an appointment for a vaccine.  The basic problem is that you cannot schedule an appointment for a vaccine that does not yet exist.  Unfortunately, all across America, the demand continues to far exceed the available supply.

This morning, I had a teleconference with the White House and CDC officials.  Governors continue to press the Biden Administration on the desperate need to get more doses produced and distributed to the states as quickly as possible.  Today’s call included an update on the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine candidate which is being made right here in Maryland at the Emergent BioSolutions plant.  Federal officials said that they anticipate that emergency use authorization could be granted by the FDA very shortly and that we can expect to see allocations of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine to states as early as next week.  We’re pretty excited about having another vaccine coming online and we’ll provide more information as it becomes available from the federal government.

State superintendent of schools and I have been strongly pushing to get students safely back into the classroom for in‑person instruction by March and I’m pleased that nearly every school system in the state has either already done so or has indicated that will be the deadline.

Last week, we submitted a $1.5 billion supplemental budget to provide additional support for the safe reopening of schools.  We’ve offered more than one million COVID‑19 tests to any public or private school as well as an unlimited supply of PPE.  Today, I’m executing an executive order to clarify that masks are required for anyone over the age of 5 in any area of a school setting where interaction with others is likely including classrooms, hallways, cafeterias or the gymnasium.

I’m looking forward to visiting school systems all across the state in the coming weeks to thank all of the teachers, staff and administrators who have been working hard to get our kids back in the classroom.

Lastly, there have been increased reports of fraud connected to COVID‑19 vaccines including calls of people claiming to represent the health department and asking for payments and social security numbers.  Last week, the U.S. attorney filed a criminal complaint against three Baltimore area individuals for a scheme to allegedly sell COVID‑19 vaccines by replicating the website of a well‑known biotech company.  I want to make this very clear.  No one can sell you a vaccine.  No one can charge you for a vaccine.  It is free.  No insurance information is required.  And no social security information is required.  You can access and verify information regarding all authorized providers at COVIDvax.maryland.gov and if you see something that doesn’t look right or sound right to you, if you suspect any type of fraudulent activity, we ask that you immediately report it to law enforcement so we can go after them and shut them down and we can arrest the individuals responsible.  Anyone who attempts to prey on innocent people in this life-or-death crisis will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  At this time, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Chan to discuss the expanded surveillance practice.

JINLENE CHAN: Thank you, Governor. And good afternoon. I’m going to focus my remarks, as the governor indicated, on the variants of concern that have been identified in Maryland and what we’re doing to expand our capacity to be able to increase sequencing.  We have seen that the virus has continued to change across the entire course of the pandemic.  So the mutations have ‑‑ we’ve seen that in the sequencing that has been done to date, even at our state labs.  The difference is between the mutations and some of the new variants that has been identified is that those mutations have not changed the behavior of the virus itself.  Some of the variants that have been identified more recently that are circulating globally and also here in Maryland differ from the earlier strains of the COVID‑19 virus in that they tend to be more transmissible.

So again, the severity of the disease does not appear to be increased.  Vigilance of work at our state public health labs as well as our partners on the private sector and in academia, we have actually identified a number of variants here in the state beginning with the D11 variant which is known as the U.K. variant.  The D135.31 variant and the P1 variant also known as the Brazilian variant.  Again, this is because we’ve had increased our sequencing efforts over the last couple of months.  There are, across the United States right now, over 1600 documented cases with variants that have been identified in the U.S.  The majority of those are the B117 or the U.K. variant.  About 60 cases have been identified in total here in Maryland with the majority, again, being the U.K. variant.  We know that these do spread more easily and there are more studies looking at the severity of the disease.

There have been some recent studies done in the laboratory setting that suggests that antibodies produced in response to the Moderna vaccine may not be as protective but more study is clearly needed to really determine what impact the vaccine will have or the variants will have on the vaccine.  It is still believed that having the vaccine is still an important step toward protecting against disease from COVID‑19 even those caused by the variants of concern.

As the Governor indicated, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is under consideration by the FDA and we anticipate a lot more details about the efficacy of that vaccine coming out shortly this week, any day now.  Some of their clinical trials, it is important to note, were actually done in South Africa with the circulating South African variants so the additional information will be helpful to understand what the impact of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is and the data that has been released shows it is effective against severe disease due to COVID‑19.

Here in Maryland, we have been learning more about the variants in the state and we have expanded now our sequencing initiative.  The viral ‑‑ it helps to build the viral structure.  What sequencing does is it gives the details of what it looks like.  So it helps us understand how the virus instructions might change over time.  And also helps us identify those variants of concern that, again, some of us we have mentioned, that have been found in the state.

State and local public health use the genomic sequencing along with tracing efforts to identify and track cases throughout the state to understand how they have spread, to identify additional contact and appropriately isolate and quarantine them.  Also information about the contact tracing interview to understand how the variant’s concern might impact individuals.

The state, as the Governor indicated, has just signed these agreements with the University of Maryland as well as with Hopkins and we will be expanding our capacity from approximately 300 sequences a week to over 700 sequences.  That’s about 10 percent, over 10 percent of the total number of sequences that we are currently averaging.  And we’ll continuously work on this.  With the procurement of the additional equipment and the purchase of more capacity, working with our state lab and others is to ultimately bolster our state public health capacity and the overall infrastructure here in the state, not only to help us with the on‑going response of this pandemic but also for future response efforts.  The increase in sequencing will dramatically increase our chances of identifying the coronavirus variants of concern in all of our communities.

So we anticipate that he as we do more sequencing, we’ll identify more cases.  We want to make sure that people understand that.  If the clinicians out there ‑‑ I just want to speak to them for a moment ‑‑ to say if you identify an individual who may test positive for COVID‑19, especially after vaccination or if they’re reinfected with COVID‑19 after having had it or have severe immunocompromised or may have prolonged COVID‑19 illness, we ask that you contact us through the state health department directly so we can see if it was appropriate in those instances.

Through our contact tracing efforts, especially with the variants, we have found that the majority of the cases that we have identified with the variants of concern have actually not had any known travel histories.  Even when we do significant back tracing to identify a potential source even with the individual, it is not indicating a history of travel in those cases.  What that indicates to us is that there is on‑going community transmission already happening here in the state and so again, it is now more important than ever that we wear a mask, that we practice social distancing and that we avoid large gatherings to try to prevent on‑going transmission of the variant cases.  I will turn the podium over to Secretary Schrader.

DENNIS SCHRADER: After opening our first mass vaccination site as planned, the state has launched telephone‑based support line.  It is called the COVID‑19 vaccination support center and it is available at 855‑MDGOVAX.  It is open 7 days a week.  It is designed to target those who need access to vaccines through the phone.  So we are pleased, however, to offer a very robust and customer‑friendly platform to assist Marylanders with getting vaccines.

Let me give you a rundown of the center’s capabilities.  As callers reach the center, they can find information on Maryland’s vaccination efforts.  They can also schedule appointments at our state‑run mass vaccination centers.  We also identify COVID‑19 vaccine providers, the centers that are closest to them geographically.  We have English and Spanish so constituents that go through the Spanish side are connected with Spanish‑speaking call center advocates.  Residents can also elect to be served by live agents, text messaging or engaging via chatbot or instant message.

As of this week, we’ll have more than 500 advocates receiving calls.  Last week, we soft launched the support center, last Monday, on the 15th.  And the early results were very impressive.  We handled nearly 6,000 inbound and outbound calls to segmented groups or seniors from lists that we received from the Maryland Department of Aging.  On those outbound, 619 outbound calls, we yielded a very nice connection rate of 37.2 percent.  And that allowed us to book more than 2,000 appointments.  Of course, many of them were multi‑appointment households which is how we got to 2,000.

In addition, we previously tested this support center with outbound calls to Prince George’s County residents working with Prince George’s County Department of Health and we received from them about 5,000 names that we called three times and we made 1,000 appointments.  So we were very excited about that early opportunity.

Let me just talk a little bit about some of the data from the support center.  This gives you an early indication of data from the end of the call center period on the 19th, last Friday.  We received nearly 30,000 calls.  This is primarily, however, for residents without internet access.  And of that 30,000, we spoke with, through our agents, with 7100.  But in addition, another large group, well over 20,000 were able to take advantage of online services.  We’ve scheduled another 800 mass vaccination appointments that day and now in total, we’ve scheduled 11, 828.

So the call center is going to continue to have an appointment inventory available on a rolling basis and in addition, to what’s made available online so that we’re assured that folks who call will have access to appointments.  And finally, we’re very pleased that on our busiest day, just recently, Monday the 22nd, the abandon rate was a very low .6 percent.  Those abandoning after being on the phone for four minutes.  But we’re very pleased with that abandonment rate.  I’ll stop there and turn it back to you, Governor.

GOVERNOR HOGAN: Happy to take some questions.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: The White House coronavirus coordinator said that while they don’t know the exact timing of the FDA, that they anticipated it to happen perhaps ‑‑ I think as early as Friday.  And if that happens as anticipated, they would be able to make shipment to the state as early as next week.  They said it could happen as early as next week.  We know that they’ve said to us that the first ‑‑ they have about two million ready to be shipped to the states.  We received about 2 percent of the nationwide supplies, whatever that equates to on the first batch.  But they’ve also committed to helping productions up to 20 million by the end of March.  That would be 400,000 more vaccines for Maryland.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: It’s been a terrible problem.  With talking with the data experts, you can’t prohibit that.  There’s no way to stop it.  So when someone gets a notification, it shouldn’t go to people but it happens in nearly every single case in every single county.  You can’t give someone an email notification and somehow prohibit them from sharing it.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: They didn’t discuss that at all today.  The current two vaccines, obviously Pfizer and Moderna are two‑shot vaccines.  The Johnson and Johnson is a one‑shot vaccine and there are differences in efficacy.  I’m sure they’ll be announcing that as Dr. Chan said.  The Johnson and Johnson is the only one who did full‑scale trials in South Africa and I believe also Brazil.  So they know that less efficacy on that but the others don’t have any data on that at all.  Also know one vaccine is 86 percent as opposed to 47.5 on the first dose.  You have to wait two or three weeks to get the second one.  We’ll get more guidance from the federal government when they approve and when they tell states what we’re going to get.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: At this point, we’re only opening sites as we get enough vaccines to do so.  Montgomery County has the most vaccines and the most distribution points and it has the highest percentage of people getting vaccinated.  It is not as big as some other areas but not something we would rule out to get the vaccine.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: It is probably we’re all working on.  One of the things we’ve said ‑‑ it is a critically important appointment for us.  It is why we have the National Guard to assist them while we opened up our first pharmacies.  I’ve been there multiple times with the County Executive, the opening at Six Flags and there is a tremendous reluctance to get the vaccine.  They’ve put a fewer percentage of them into arms and that’s something we’re working on from a public information standpoint.

We avoided the ‑‑ the equity task force since 70 percent are being done by other than the local health department, we’ve asked them to appoint someone and it is their efforts on reaching underserved communities and places where they need more help.  We’re going into mobile vaccination centers, taking into consideration when we’re opening up pharmacies and other locations, our site at M and T Bank stadium and discussing with the White House.  They’re having difficulties nationwide.  Every governor is having these issues.  We’ll continue to focus on it with the federal, state and local partners.  How do we get more needles into more arms.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: On the second half, the goal, I think would be 10 percent of the population is what the CDC says.  Federal government does about 3 percent.  We’ll be at about 10 percent.  We’ll be about the first state, I think.  But it is only a small percentage and the ones we have the most suspicion on.

JINLENE CHAN: What I alluded to in my remarks is that earlier this month, we did send a letter to clinicians just to remind them that there are some cases that we really have a special interest in. Right now, our laboratory and our local health departments work to identify these potential cases. So a lot of these have been identified at the laboratory level because there are some signals that the laboratory can identify, even during tests, that that might be a clue that the individual has a COVID of concern.  Some have been identified because of the signals that they’re seeing at the laboratory level.

In other cases, if there is an outbreak, if there is an individual who may have died and gone to the medical examiner’s office and some of the other places where we have targeted ‑‑ again, with our expanded capacity, we’re trying to take a broader look and trying to gather some other potential cases.  Again, this is not ‑‑ this is a limited resource.  Very, very work‑intensive and time‑intensive but we’re dedicating and investing our efforts into making sure that we have sufficient capacity and that we’ll continue to grow.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: There are only a few very small states with the size and population of Montgomery who have done that.  There was one state, Massachusetts, which attempted it.  Completely crashed.  A friend of mine, governor is being criticized for the crash.  Secretary Schrader has said we don’t want millions of people trying to go into one website and crash it.  Our system is working better.  It is why 99.7 percent of all of our vaccines are in arms.  The real frustration is it doesn’t matter if you have one, ten or 100 sites, we only have so many vaccines.  Until we get more supply.  We made the decision.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: That is definitely something we’re taking a very close look at.  We have 100 percent of our businesses open at this point.  But we do have some capacity restrictions.  I don’t see us lifting a mask order at any time.  As I started discussion on today, our metrics could not be being any better.  We’re down to the October level.  We got past all of the surge and been consistent now for, in many cases, six, eight weeks.  Surging going down which is great.  We want to keep things going that way.  It is helping that we’re getting vaccines out and also mitigation efforts on that compliance and people are following the public health advice.  What we don’t want to do is have everybody get complacent and have the crazy variants out there.  There’s embers.  We don’t want it to flame back up again.

SPEAKER: (Off Microphone).

GOVERNOR HOGAN: I’ll let Secretary Schrader give you the specifics.  This was our intention to build this for sites.  The slow opening of those the first couple of days.  By next week, we’ll be doing 2,000.  We will be able to do it.  Each of the five sites.  5,000, 6,000 a day.  At some point, we’ll be doing more vaccines than what we’re doing currently.  We need to have these.  It is a soft launch.  10,000 appointments got scheduled on the site on Monday.  But it is going to be handling a whole lot of volume.

DENNIS SCHRADER: We’re examining the design as we speak.  It will be sometime in the near future.  But we’re working through the details now and we’ll have more in the not‑too‑distant future.

SPEAKER: Thank you.