By Jessica Albert

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — While officials in Baltimore and Howard counties have issued indoor mask mandates to combat the spread of COVID-19, Anne Arundel County is not following suit—at least not yet.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said Tuesday that unlike his peers in those counties, he does not have the authority to issue such a mandate. But he said he expects the county council to discuss that issue at its meeting next week.

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“It’s a slow-moving process when it’s a legislative process and not part of an emergency order,” Pittman said. “But I don’t have the authority to do that, so we’re waiting to see what the county council does.”

Along the same lines, Pittman said he doesn’t plan to declare a state of emergency, even though he could issue a temporary declaration. He said he would prefer to wait for direction from the council.

“Rather than play yo-yo with these decisions, we’re letting the county council debate this first,” Pittman said. “And that’s what they’re going to do… we expect there to be legislation introduced on Monday.”

The discussion of new safety measures comes as Maryland wrestles with a rising number of infections and hospitalizations, as well as an elevated number of people testing positive.

As of Tuesday, the state reported more than 1,800 COVID-19 patients, 6,500 new cases and a 17.58% positivity rate.

The county executive said the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 at University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center and Anne Arundel Medical Center is up to 134, a week after that figure doubled from its previous mark to 85 hospitalizations.

On Tuesday, both of those hospitals shifted to emergency protocols based on recent surges they have seen in the number of patients they’re treating for COVID-19.

“The bottom line is that (these hospitals are) doing everything that they can to make sure that they can serve the people who need them most,” Pittman said. “So, that means shifting staffing around and not doing procedures that don’t have to be done now.”

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Three-quarters of those hospitalized at hospitals in the county are unvaccinated individuals, the county executive said. He said the rest are vaccinated people are older in age or have preexisting conditions.

After distributing 100,000 at-home test kits last week, the county is ramping up testing efforts.

The county executive said the county has ordered 200,000 more test kits, which officials hope to begin distributing next week. Pittman said this time, the effort will be slower going and more comprehensive to make sure families that need tests aren’t overlooked.

Because the county’s infection rate has quadrupled over the past three weeks, there will be changes in how the health department conducts contact tracing, said Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the county health officer.

“We’re going to have to prioritize where we’re contact tracing, so we’re going to be focusing on those areas where people are most vulnerable—childcare, homeless shelters, assisted living, recovery houses, detention centers,” Dr. Kalyanaraman said.

Saying unvaccinated people are three-and-a-half times more likely to test positive, Kalyanaraman urged residents to get the vaccine if they have not already done so, and to get the booster shot.

“Boosters help address both your body’s waning immunity and the virus changing,” he said.

Pittman implored county residents to do their part to limit the transmission of COVID-19, whether it means getting their vaccines or booster shots or avoiding large gathering where it’s likely to spread.

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“If you want to make sure that the hospitals are available for your loved ones and you for whatever emergencies that you may have, whatever medical care and attention that you may need, please, please, please do everything that you can to slow the spread of this virus,” he said.

Jessica Albert