Hogan: Easter Bunny is essential employee

ANNAPOLIS — Finally, some good news about COVID-19.
In a press conference on Friday, flanked by state and national flags and senior Maryland officials, Gov. Larry Hogan declared the Easter Bunny as an essential worker. “He therefore will be able to proceed with his hopping across the state delivering Easter baskets to Maryland children,” the governor said.

It was a light-hearted moment in an otherwise businesslike presentation, but one that did address a serious issue: the well-being of children. Even the youngest Marylanders can sense things are amiss this spring, and, as the governor said, have been concerned that the Easter Bunny would not be able to visit.

Word of the announcement began to circulate immediately on social networks. Parents alerted one another, and spoke of how happy their children would be — they really had been asking about the sweet treats.

Toll so far
Gov. Hogan opened the conference with the latest numbers on the virus. He said as of Friday morning, there were 6,968 confirmed cases in Maryland, which has been hit with 171 deaths from COVID-19 in the previous three weeks.

There were 1,413 patients hospitalized, and 397 who had recovered and been released from isolation.

The strike teams announced a few days earlier have been active, he said, with health workers and National Guard soldiers going to nursing homes and similar facilities to offer help and supplies. Laboratories are increasing the numbers of tests they care conducting to find affected individuals, though kits are still in short supply in Maryland and around the world.

“We’ve been working aggressively to acquire more kits,” Gov. Hogan said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a personal protective equipment cleaning site at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where masks and other gear can be cleaned and re-used, helping to address another shortage.

Other health initiatives announced were:
• The website COVIDConnect, with a link at coronavirus.maryland.gov. “COVIDConnect is a secure portal that is open to all Maryland residents who were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 and who are now recovered from their disease,” a statement on the website says. “It will be a place to share information, promote action and find support.”
• $1 million has been allocated to Johns Hopkins Health System to study how plasma from recovered patients can be used to treat the disease.

Economic moves
“Obviously, this virus is wreaking havoc” on Maryland’s economy and state funds, Gov. Hogan said. He referred to a projection released Friday morning by Comptroller Peter Franchot, predicting a loss in revenue of up to $2.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2020.

The administration has recently received 679 pieces of legislation from the General Assembly, none of which had been reviewed. “It is very unlikely that any bills requiring increased spending will be signed into law,” Gov. Hogan said.

In response to the grim forecast, Gov. Hogan declared a freeze in state spending, except for the virus battle and salaries. He also instituted a hiring freeze for state workers, though some contractors are being brought in to help address sharply rising jobless claims.

He said there had been 108,000 new unemployment claims in the last week, and 240,000 in the last month. “That is more new claims than we received in all of 2019,” he said.

Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson said while most claims have been filed online, there are about 5 percent which cannot be submitted that way. These jobless Marylanders must use the phone to contact the department to file their claims, resulting in thousands of calls a day to the department.

“Our teams are doing their best to keep up with this unprecedented volume,” she said.

Staff is being added from other state agencies and Saturday hours will be offered after the holiday. Information on filing claims can be found at ui.inquiry@maryland.gov.

Still, unemployment checks are being sent. “Most Maryland residents are receiving their first payments within 21 days,” Ms. Robinson said, adding that here have been 215,000 payments since March 1.

Mail-in voting
Gov. Hogan said the State Board of Elections has voted to conduct the June 2 primary voting through mail-in ballots. Special polling places with strictly observed social distancing arrangements will be provided for citizens not able to vote by mail.

“Free and fair elections are the very foundation of our American democracy,” Gov. Hogan said.
In the meantime, the pandemic is still spreading — projections show numbers in the state climbing sharply in Maryland. This week, Gov. Hogan said, could be especially significant.

“We believe the actions that we took, and that people are helping us take, are having a real impact,” he said. “Only time will tell how much of a difference it will make.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Maryland Department of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage

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