COVID Hospitalizations in Washington County

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are surging again, sparking actions from the Washington County Health Department, Gov. Larry Hogan and Meritus Health.

“At this point we again are heading in the wrong direction, and we all need to do our part to stop further spread of COVID-19,” Earl Stoner, Washington County health officer, said in a news release Friday.

"Now is the time for us all to recommit to working together to fight this disease," he said. "Simply put, I urge everyone to get vaccinated or boosted when you are eligible, wear a mask in indoor public settings, and to get tested and stay home if you are sick.”

On Friday, statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations topped 1,200. That threshold triggered actions for Maryland hospitals, as Gov. Larry Hogan ordered Wednesday.

At this point, those actions include making available all staffed bed capacity and reducing non-urgent medical surgeries.

"The vast majority of these hospitalizations are unvaccinated patients, who remain at grave risk of serious infection, severe illness and death," Hogan said in a news release.

The new omicron variant is believed to be more transmissible than previous variants and is expected to overtake delta as the main driver of new cases, the governor said.

"Initial studies indicate that higher levels of immunity from booster shots do provide more protection, which makes it more important than ever that every single Marylander who is eligible for a booster shot should get a booster as soon as possible," Hogan said.

“The bottom line: if you are unvaccinated, get vaccinated. If you are vaccinated, get your booster shot.”

At Meritus Medical Center, COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise, going from none on some days this summer to more than 70 — levels not seen since last winter.

On Dec. 17, 2020, the hospital near Hagerstown was treating 80 COVID-19 patients, with 11 in the intensive care unit.

On that same date this year, the hospital was treating 71 COVID-19 patients, with nine in the ICU.

In recent weeks, more than 80% of the hospitalized COVID patients have been unvaccinated. Unvaccinated patients often account for all of the ICU cases, according to Meritus statistics.

On Friday morning Carrie Adams, chief quality and transformation officer at Meritus, said officials believe COVID hospitalizations at Meritus could reach 100 on some days next month.

Referring to the governor's orders, she said the hospital has surge plans to cope with a variety of challenges, including the rise in COVID hospitalizations.

"We are continuously looking at that surge plan and making adjustments, depending on what we're seeing," Adams said.

The plan addresses a variety of specific steps, from allocating staff to using space within the facility.

Meritus is 'force ready'

In addition to the surge in COVID cases, Meritus also is seeing an increase in seasonal ailments, such as the flu, and in chronic illnesses, Adams said. The hospital is continuing with its usual treatments and surgeries for other conditions aside from COVID.

"We're balancing our resources on our hospital side and our ambulatory side," she said, referring to the medical center as well as other Meritus Health facilities, such as urgent care.

With the COVID surge, she said, it's particularly important that patients flow through the appropriate facility. For example, Adams said, a person with a routine sore throat probably should go to urgent care or a doctor's office, not the emergency room.

Meritus is licensed for 300 beds.

"We also have what we call a 'surge unit'" that could be put into service, she said.

The hospital has not had to put patients into what Adams called "nontraditional areas," such as a surgery suite that could be pressed into use for hospital beds in a crunch.

As for staffing, Adams said Meritus workers are "a little burned out" from months of coping with COVID-19.

"We've done a lot of things around caring for our existing staff," she said, referring to mobile massages, resiliency training, games and other efforts "to lighten the mood."

Meritus also has a "helping hands" program, in which nonclinical staff members can take care of some tasks to ease the burden on clinical professionals.

She said the health system has hired nurses through outside agencies to provide temporary staffing at key areas.

Meritus operates a walk-in vaccine clinic and the drive-thru testing center on Crayton Boulevard.

"We are continuously looking at our staffing capacity," Adams said, and at this point the health system is "force ready."

Maryland thresholds

On Wednesday, Hogan announced a series of steps to address the surge. Those included coordinating with hospitals and establishing a state surge operations center.

The governor also set statewide hospitalization thresholds that would trigger action.

At 1,200, which the state passed Friday, hospitals are to make available all staffed bed capacity and reduce scheduling non-urgent medical surgeries that would result in an overnight stay.

At 1,500, hospitals are directed to implement their pandemic plans.

To further complicate things, the state health department was hit by a cyberattack earlier this month, and its website showing data on COVID-19 has been limited in its daily updates. It has resumed updates for vaccinations and hospitalizations.

The server trouble has impacted the Washington County COVID-19 information dashboard, which hasn't had updated stats on new infections and deaths since Dec. 4.

This article originally published in The Herald-Mail and online at in December 2021.