BALTIMORE (WJZ) — University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health on Friday declared a hospital disaster at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, citing a recent explosion in COVID-19 patients.

The health system said it’s shifting to crisis standards of care protocols at the Bel Air hospital to keep up with the demand for care after the hospital saw COVID-19 cases increase by 733% over the past four weeks.

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“This is a critical response to a dynamic situation, is not a decision we made lightly and is one that was made after exhausting all other avenues to address issues that are challenging our operations,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Fermin Barrueto said.

The extraordinary measure comes as the health system has seen infections at UCMC and UM Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace rise by 458% in the past month.

“We have seen an unprecedented surge in our COVID volume,” Dr. Barrueto told WJZ.

Once Maryland reached 1,500 COVID-19 patients Thursday, hospitals statewide were directed to launch their pandemic plans, which involve maximizing bed space to make room for a potential surge of patients.

Implementing crisis protocols is intended to help the hospital managing a surge of patients. The shift might include adjusting surgical schedules to prioritize those most in need, pivoting staff and simplifying documentation.

“It allows us to continue to stretch our staff,” Barrueto said. “It allows us to use unconventional staff to be able to support our nurses. It also helps us set expectations for the community that it is not business as usual.”

As of Friday, there were 74 COVID-19 patients between the two hospitals, which Barrueto said are also dealing with staffing shortages.

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“We have a very weary staff after battling this bug for two years,” he said. “On top of that, we’re asking them to do more or give longer hours, to work on the holidays and weekends. It has been a challenge and it has been a marathon.”

Other hospitals are struggling, too. In Baltimore, health leaders said this week that hospitals are nearing capacity and hospitalizations are up 185% over the past month.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he expects the number of hospitalizations to surpass the 2,000-mark soon.

“While we do expect that to peak in mid to late January, that is typically around when we also have the peak of the flu season, causing additional strain on our healthcare system,” the governor said.

Lyle Sheldon, the president and chief executive officer for UM Upper Chesapeake Health, said the health system is doing everything in its power to support its workforce in light of the toll they’ve taken during the pandemic.

“Our team members at UM Harford Memorial Hospital (UM HMH) are similarly impacted and stretched to near-crisis levels. We are monitoring that situation very carefully to take the same action if appropriate,” Sheldon said.

Dr. David Marcozzi, professor of medicine for the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the UMMS COVID-19 incident commander, said all UMMS hospitals are working to scale back the number of surgeries they’re performing by 20%.

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“While UM UCH may be the first in Maryland to formally implement [Crisis Standards of Care protocols], they will not be the last,” Dr. Marcozzi said.

Jessica Albert