Public agencies talk about prevention, preparations after Maryland confirms viral cases

by Geoff Fox & Kate Shunney

State and county agencies have launched public education campaigns, testing and planning efforts now that Maryland officials have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the state.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced last week the first five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state of Maryland. Four of those were in Montgomery County and one in Harford County. All contracted the disease while traveling overseas, say health officials.

Hogan has issued a state of emergency to ramp up Maryland’s coordinated responses across all levels of government, and to release funding for those efforts.

During a March 3 County Commissioners meeting in Hagerstown, David Hays, Washington County’s Director of the Division of Emergency Services briefed county officials on preparations for his department.

Hays said it isn’t the time to panic, but it “is time for planning and preparation.”

Hays said the process right now is to make sure first responders have the appropriate personal protective equipment to go out and serve the residents of Washington County.

“This is very similar to the influenza flu that we experience each year,” he said. “It’s different, but it does have similar characteristics.”

Hays also noted the precautions are similar to those of influenza – wash your hands and keep bodily distance when possible.

The county emergency services has conducted an inventory of the N95 mask, which is a one-time use mask that filters out at least 95% of the particulate matter and is certified for use in this virus exposure.

Emergency services have ordered almost 2,095 masks and have partially received those masks.

Hays said the acquisition and distribution of those masks has been challenging as people have been buying them “for the wrong reasons” as they are intended for the medical field and first responders.

Isolation kits have also been purchased and are intended for each career and volunteer responders in the county. Each kit includes a gown, N95 mask, leg covers, and eye covers.

“All of this is geared at protecting our workforce, first and foremost, for their own health and safety,” he said, “but also to help ensure continuity o

f service and operations for the 911 Center.”

On Monday, Earl Stoner, director of the Washington County Health Department, said his department is monitoring all aspects of the situation and taking steps to keep the community safe and healthy.

“The threat to Washington County at this time is low and has remained low throughout,” he said. There are no confirmed cases of the virus in the county.

While public health efforts continue to focus on containing the spread of the virus, Stoner said we must prepare for the eventual spread within communities.

“I think that’s a really important point,” he said.

“We will continue to provide information as it becomes available and we encourage everyone to stay informed with credible, accurate, factual-based information,” Stoner said.

He said county health communications and emergency services are working in a unified manner to keep communication open.

The Health Department is also working with state, federal, and local partners to lead response efforts, all with the goal to minimize the risk to the community.

Stoner said there are frequent briefings and coordination calls with state and federal partners, established a coronavirus taskforce, identifying any gaps that might exist, establishing plans first responders and medical staff health and safety, and addressing any resources the county might have.

While the risk is still low in Washington County, Stoner said it’s not the time to panic, but to prepare and plan.

Meritus Health in Hagerstown has issued guidelines for visitors to their facilities, saying children under 12, those with flu-like symptoms and those who have recently travelled overseas will not be permitted to enter.

The area medical center has also asked patients to call their health provider before coming to a Meritus facility for care.

Individuals who have flu-like symptoms, including a fever and cough, and are unsure what new guidelines are considered a risk are asked to call 301-790-9170 before coming to the hospital or visiting their medical provider’s office. is an email box for COVID-19 related questions and concerns. The email box is being monitored and users can expect a response within 48 hours, said Meritus officials.

Local schools

Parents of Hancock students have received notices about Washington County Public Schools’ “proactive steps” to be ready to address the virus if it spreads in the community.

Those include regular protocols of hand washing, healthy sneeze/cough habits, disinfecting and sanitizing surfaces.

For students traveling outside the Hancock area for extracurricular activities, the school system said it is monitoring travel advisories to other areas and “will adjust student travel outside of the county or state for school-related activities if necessary.”

“At Hancock Elementary School, teachers have been reviewing the important of hand washing with students, our custodial staff has been sanitizing classrooms throughout the day and each evening and we are doing what we can to ensure that we are preventing the spread of all germs – colds, viruses, influenza, etc. as much as is possible,” said Principal Gest.

Follow regular

prevention steps

Health officials at all levels are urging people to follow basic illness prevention steps to aid in staying healthy during any disease outbreak. These are especially important in helping to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

–Avoid close contact with people who are sick

–Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

–Stay home when you are sick

–Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash

–Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe

Most importantly:

–Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.