TOWSON, Md. (WJZ) — Baltimore County will expand COVID-19 testing to meet demand and move to an appointment-only system next week to avoid long lines in winter weather, County Executive Johnny Olszewski said on Wednesday.

The county is opening another testing center at the former Sears location in White Marsh Mall, joining clinics in Randallstown, Towson and Dundalk.

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Olszewski said the government purchased 100,000 at-home test kits for residents and will begin distributing them next week at locations across the county next week.

On Dec. 27, Olszewski declared a local state of emergency and introduced an indoor mask mandate in response to surging cases. The mandate took effect on Dec. 29.

Since the arrival of the Omicron variant, the positivity rate in the county has increased by 400% and the number of hospitalized patients in the jurisdiction has increased by 300%, the county executive said Wednesday.

Olszewski said hospital leaders have told him emergency rooms are full, and there are only eight staffed intensive care unit beds currently available.

“We expect that this may only continue to worsen,” he said.

Following a tour of fire stations, GBMC hospital and a testing site, Olszewski pleaded for kindness from residents interacting with emergency and medical personnel. He recalled the story of a GBMC patient who became so irate they couldn’t get the results of a COVID-19 test in 15 minutes that security had to intervene.

“It was pretty staggering for me to hear some of the things our first responders and healthcare professionals are dealing with out there,” he said.

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Baltimore County Fire Chief Joanne Rund and IAFF Local 1311 President John Sibiga Jr. echoed Olszewski’s call, saying their members are overburdened.

“They have been on the front lines for the last two years,” Rund said. “They are tired, they are exhausted. It is physically and it is emotionally tolling on them.”

Responding to a viral tweet from the Baltimore County Volunteer Firefighters Association that the county is out of EMS transport units, Rund said there may be times where residents who call for emergency service and a fire truck arrives at their home instead of an ambulance.

“Those personnel are also trained in emergency medical services. They are not just firefighters,” she said. “So please know we will get you help if you need it.”

Rund said 10% of county firefighters and EMS personnel are out because they tested positive for COVID-19 or are quarantining.

In addition to the tests for residents, the county has secured 100,000 test kits for the school system and will begin distributing them in the coming weeks., Olszewski said. Over the weekend, schools were supplied with 70,000 KN95 masks and thousands of tests ahead of the return to the classroom.

The county government is working with its testing vendor to set up a clinic for municipal employees. Olszewski said he hopes the increase in testing will ease some of the burden on medical workers and first responders.

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“This is about meeting the testing demand and trying to remind folks that EMS and EMT services and the hospitals are not places for tests,” he said.

Brandon Weigel