CHESTERTOWN — With Thanksgiving about a week away and the holiday season rapidly approaching, Kent County Health Officer William Webb and Gov. Larry Hogan are asking that residents stray from tradition a bit this year in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Do not travel over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house,” Webb said while updating the Kent County Commissioners Tuesday on the pandemic. “Remember the virus is aggressively spreading here and elsewhere. Many who are infected do not know it. Shop Black Friday online. The best gift you can give is the gift of health. Get a flu shot if you have not already done so.”
Hogan himself has reportedly canceled plans for a family Thanksgiving with his daughters and grandchildren.
During his COVID-19 update at the commissioners meeting, Webb reported 24 new cases in the county in the last two weeks — all transmitted through community spread. As of Nov. 15, there have been 236 cases within the Chestertown ZIP code since March.
Noting “COVID fatigue” among the public is real and is leading to people being fed up with more government restrictions, Webb reminded Kent County citizens that these measures are created to help keep people alive.
“Clearly, Maryland has entered a surge of COVID-19 whose severity appears quite extraordinary,” Webb said. “Our state and our community need to brace for the next round of this highly infectious disease.”
Gov. Larry Hogan held a news conference Tuesday addressing rising case numbers and announcing new restrictions on hospital and nursing home visits and ordering bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m., starting Friday. Capacity at retailers, personal service businesses, churches and other spaces is to revert back to 50%. Sports fans are no longer allowed at stadiums or arenas.
“This new surge of COVID-19 is going to continue placing enormous strain on both our health care systems and our economy,” Hogan said.
He said that while Maryland has faired better than most of the country, there is wide community spread of the virus in every corner of the state.
The governor said Maryland has seen 13 straight days of more than 1,000 new cases. He said there were 2,321 new cases on Saturday and another 2,149 in the past 24 hours.
“We have seen widespread failures to follow orders and public health advisories statewide. Again, we are calling on the counties to implement strict enforcement of all existing and new orders and directives to ensure that closures are not required,” Hogan said.
Likening the virus to the tides creeping up the shore to the county, Webb warned of the oncoming surge in cases medical professionals have been expecting in the colder months. Though Kent County has been spared from the worst of the COVID-19 compared to more metropolitan areas, Webb said the county could face a similar crisis if “our vigilance wanes.”
“Kent County stands on the high ground and we can see the water rising,” Webb said. “We do not know how high it will go or how rough the waves will be.”
While Kent County’s positivity rate — the total number of positive tests out of all tests administered on a rolling seven day average — remains below the statewide number, the state’s case numbers are on the rise as are the county’s.
This week has seen the positivity rate in Kent County drop from 3.28% Sunday to 2.76% Tuesday, according to Maryland Department of Health figures. The state’s rate has climbed from 6.45% to 6.82% in the same timeframe.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, prior to the commissioners meeting, Webb said COVID outbreaks in Kent County were confined primarily to nursing homes. He said the cases now are out in the wider community, which is more challenging to address.
Webb spoke in the interview about how Garrett County’s COVID numbers stayed very low for many, many months.
“And in the last month, they have had quite an uptick out there. They are just as rural, if not more geographically separated from the rest of the state than we are. It can happen here and I’m expecting our numbers to go up,” Webb said.
The Kent County Health Department offers COVID tests on Mondays and Thursdays, but it is currently booked up through Thanksgiving. In the interview, Webb said the health department can do about 75 tests per day. He said he has the testing supplies to expand that capacity, but not the registered nurses available to collect specimens.
“I’m hoping once we get past the Thanksgiving holiday that the demand will go down some because we are seeing a lot of folks who need to get tested for the travel for the holiday,” he said.
On a positive note, Webb told the commissioners it looks promising that a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready by early 2021. He said the Kent County Health Department will be prepared to dispense the vaccine as early as next month.
The vaccine will be available in phases with the first reserved for health care workers, first responders and residents of nursing homes or congregate care facilities. The second phase of the vaccine will be administered to essential workers and those over age 65. The third phase will be available to the general public.
The vaccine does bring with it logistic complications for rural areas like Kent County.
Webb said the vaccine is temperature sensitive and must be stored at -77 degrees Fahrenheit. After it is thawed, it must be administered within five days. In Kent County, it will likely need to be kept on dry ice as there is no facility equipped to store a vaccine at those temperatures.
To be effective, the vaccine must be administered twice with at least 21 days between inoculations. Recipients will need to register through an online appointment database.
Further, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will only ship the vaccine when a sufficient number of people are registered with appointments. The vaccine will only be shipped in lots of 950 doses.
Webb said the health department is anticipating significant “vaccine hesitation” in the community with people likely wanting to wait until the first round is administered to “see what happens.”
For example, Webb said the health department’s drive-thru flu clinic only saw about 120 people per day. He said the Eastern Shore might employ a regional strategy through which Kent County might partner with neighboring counties to ensure enough people are registered for the vaccine.
Saying he’s ready for the pandemic to be over, Commissioner Ron Fithian said he will get vaccinated.
“I can assure you, I’m going to do it,” Fithian said.
Webb said he also will be getting a vaccine as soon as possible in an effort to get more people to sign up to be vaccinated.
“Vaccines save lives,” Webb said. “This vaccine is the pathway to ending the COVID crisis.”
Webb also encouraged the community to download the MD COVID Alert app. The app essentially uses Bluetooth beacons to track contact with other phones — helping the public identify if they have been exposed to someone who is COVID-positive.
“This technology was truly groundbreaking,” Webb said. “I encourage anyone with a mobile phone to active this service.”
Webb reported the app had more than 400,000 downloads the first day the app was made available.
State and local statistics and additional COVID information can be found at coronavirus.maryland.gov.