COVID-19 (AP photo)

BALTIMORE — As COVID-19 spreads across Maryland, local health departments are now responsible for the safety of workers in their jurisdiction.

Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday announced that and other measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus after he toured the state’s field hospital site at the Baltimore Convention Center.

“Nearly 12,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus,” he said shortly before Allegany County announced its eighth case of the disease. “Maryland now has 4,371 cases of COVID-19.”

Hogan last month ordered all non-essential businesses in the state to close.

Companies allowed to stay open were instructed to follow guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing.

“However, there are reports of a few businesses that are failing to comply with the law and who are potentially putting their customers and their staff at risk,” Hogan said.

On Monday, the Cumberland Times-News reported that a petition, signed by roughly 1,700 people, asked the governor to close American Woodmark Corp., a company in Cumberland that makes cabinets, because of fear that daily activities at the plant were potentially spreading the disease and endangering workers, patrons and the greater community.

“The Allegany plant has approximately 500 employees who are at risk daily,” the document states. “We all work in close proximities, and we pass off parts constantly to perform our jobs. We could potentially be sending contaminated parts and/or cabinets to our customers.”

In response to several questions CTN asked the company on Monday, American Woodmark Chairman and CEO Cary Dunston in a letter on Tuesday said the construction and cabinet industries have been identified by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as essential businesses.

"Governor Hogan’s order legally recognized CISA’s formal identification of essential businesses for the state of Maryland," Dunston said. "The governor and the federal government clearly know the importance of the housing industry to the overall socioeconomic health of our states and communities.

"Some may question why cabinets are considered essential," Dunston said. "Without cabinetry, new construction sites could not be closed out and sold, thereby having a significant impact on the ability to keep this critical infrastructure running."

The company's "top priority is the health and well-being of our teammates and the communities in which we live and work," Dunston said. "As we navigate the rapidly evolving situation together, I want to ensure the Cumberland and Allegany County communities that we very aggressively made changes to our operations and policies to meet or exceed all requirements as set forth by our local and state governments, as well as the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and applicable (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations."

Hogan on Tuesday said any local health department that determines a business, organization, establishment, facility, or construction site in their jurisdiction is unable or unwilling to cooperate with social distancing protocols and poses an unreasonable risk of exacerbating the spread of COVID-19, shall have the power to require the unsafe facility immediately modify its operations, severely limit any movement to or from that facility, or "they can shut them down altogether.”

The new order also empowers state and local law agencies to assist local health officers in the enforcement.

"Failure to obey the order may be punishable by up to a year in jail or up to a $5,000 fine or both," he said.

Moments after Hogan delivered that message, CTN asked Allegany County Health Department officials several questions including how they plan to handle complaints of safety violations at local businesses.

As of Tuesday evening, ACHD had not provided any answers.

Privacy versus public safety

Hogan said specific case data, including testing, hospitalizations and mortality rates, will now be made available about COVID-19 cases. 

“Beginning this week on the Maryland Department of Health website, I have directed them to publish everything that is available to us with respect to racial and ethnic demographic breakdowns on coronavirus cases, with instructions to update as new data becomes available,” he said. “However, I want to caution that 90% of the testing is being done by doctors and hospitals who are sending tests to private labs outside of the state which have not been keeping such data, so we do anticipate having significant gaps in the initial data that will be available to us.”

On Tuesday morning, CTN asked the local health department for details including areas of Allegany County, such as the cities of Cumberland and Frostburg, where people who tested positive for COVID-19 lived.

“This information is not released to the public due to (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy protections,” Brenda Caldwell, ACHD public information coordinator, said via email.

However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in a March bulletin stated individual health information can be disclosed “to anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of … the public.”

Clare Norins is a First Amendment attorney and member of the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which has been actively pushing for open government and transparency amid the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Withholding potentially life-saving information “goes beyond reasonably protecting privacy and, instead, fosters anxiety and public mistrust of health institutions,” she wrote in a recent editorial.

Nursing home case clusters

Hogan announced that the White House and federal officials designated the Baltimore-Washington corridor as a COVID-19 emerging hotspot.

A new screening site for the disease will be provided at the Pimlico race course, he said.

Additionally, new statewide “strike teams,” composed of members of the National Guard, representatives of local and state health departments, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, and hospital systems, will provide triage, emergency care, supplies and equipment to overburdened nursing homes, Hogan said.

“Our top concern continues to be the fact that we now have cases and or clusters of cases at 90 nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state,” he said. “We're the first state in the nation to launch such a coordinated response effort.”

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