The St. Mary’s County commissioners Tuesday moved nearly $1 million to be used by the county’s emergency services department as it fights the spread of COVID-19.
After the commissioners adjourned and reconvened as the St. Mary’s County Board of Health at their Tuesday morning meeting, the county’s emergency services department requested approval for a budget amendment of $850,380 to be used for COVID-19 response expenses, as well as delegated authority for the director to approve future expenditures.
Stephen Walker, director of emergency services, told the commissioners the department identified various needs in St. Mary’s in response to COVID-19, such as a plan for vulnerable population, including people who are homeless; a plan for first responders who could potentially become infected; the need for personal protective equipment like hospital gowns, masks, face shields and various other items; the need for additional nursing and clinical staff to the health department; and a plan for a potential surge of patients at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown.
As of Tuesday morning, the St. Mary’s health department reported 62 confirmed cases of county residents with COVID-19, almost double the number from a week ago when local community spread was first confirmed. Statewide, there were more than 4,300 cases reported as of April 7, including 103 deaths.
Walker mentioned one project proposed by Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) to house first responders and other vulnerable workers who have been putting themselves at risk to help at a local hotel, should quarantine be required. The proposal makes available one floor of the Fairfield Inn Hotel in Lexington Park, consisting of 23 hotel rooms, and would cost $22,500 a month, but Walker said “if they do not use it, they will not have to pay that cost.”
Upon approval of the funding allocation, resources would be distributed by Walker based on specific needs to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioners unanimously approved the request from the department of emergency services for the budget amendment and delegated authority to the director of the department for future expenditures. Dr. Meena Brewster, health officer for the county, told commissioners at the meeting during a public health briefing the “past several weeks have been incredibly challenging for the community.”
She said more than 60 people in the county have been infected and community transmission is now widespread, which is why it’s so important people stay home as much as possible.
Recently, two key things have been discovered about the virus, Brewster said — it can be transmitted by people before they begin showing symptoms, and even though older populations are more vulnerable, severe disease has been appearing in younger people as well. For these reasons the health department recommends residents wear cloth face coverings when they go out in public and isolate themselves when ill.
“Health care workers, law enforcement and first responders are working every day and potentially putting their own health and lives at risk … their brave and tireless work needs to be recognized because of that work … they are incredibly vulnerable to infection,” Brewster told commissioners. “We need to protect them.”
She signed a public health order for the county government to locate and reserve noncongregate sheltering to protect the community as well as certain vulnerable members, including but not limited to first responders, health workers and law enforcement.
Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) asked if emergency rooms in the county look anything like those in New York, which are overwhelmed with infected patients.
“Not yet,” Brewster said, “but we are concerned about a surge” which is expected in Maryland within the next two to eight weeks.
“So we have no deaths?” he asked, with Brewster confirming there had been no deaths from COVID-19 in St. Mary’s County as of Tuesday morning.
Last week health officials said they had scoped out the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department as a potential satellite facility for the hospital in the case of an overreaching increase of demand for hospital beds.
A satellite facility would care for those who have “less acute issues, but still need some observation,” Dr. Stephen Michaels, chief operating and medical operator of MedStar St. Mary’s, said last week. Details of the number of beds and a timeline were still being worked out.
On Tuesday, the St. Mary’s health department issued a warning to local businesses that are not complying with state orders for social distancing and other measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. The health department said in a notice that it is “working with local law enforcement to inspect retail establishments for compliance with social distancing practices.”
Businesses that don’t comply may be deemed “unsafe,” and violations could lead to facility controls or closure, according to the notice.
Some strategies include marking floors to ensure adequate distance between customers, limiting the number of people at one time in the facility, establishing customer flow patterns to avoid contact between customers and ensuring customers are not congregating in lines within or outside the facility.
“These practices need monitoring and enforcement by your staff in order to ensure they are being implemented successfully,” the health department said, adding that it is imperative to disinfect surfaces that customers and employees regularly touch.
More information about how to comply with social distancing in retail establishments is available at www.smchd.org/coronavirus, as well as www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html.