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Scott Suspends Baltimore Parks & Recreation Programs, Hints At Vaccine Passport Amid COVID-19 Surge

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Mayor Brandon Scott on Wednesday announced that he's suspending all programs run by Baltimore City Recreation and Parks through the end of January, one of several steps he said the city is taking to get the spread of COVID-19 under control.

Standing alongside local health care leaders, the mayor also said the city is also considering other safety measures, including the possibility of having certain city employees work from home and the potential for a vaccine passport program.

"We are experiencing high community transmission," the mayor said. "We have to do everything in our power, not just as the government and healthcare providers but as a community, to protect our residents, especially those at risk of severe illness."

Scott said he made the decision to suspend parks and recreation programs based on data gleaned from Maryland's COVID-19 dashboard. Though the data is limited, he acknowledged, indicators suggest Baltimore is seeing a new wave of infections.

"We have not had information about cases, deaths, testing or vaccinations specific to the city since Dec. 3," Scott said. "But what we do know is that hospitalizations are up significantly over the past few weeks, which is an alarming sign for all of us."

The measures come as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations surge in Maryland. Hospitalizations are nearing 1,500 and the percentage of people testing positive is up to 12.15%. On Tuesday, the state reported 6,218 new cases, a single-day high.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said hospitalizations are up,

"Hospitals are at 90-percent capacity in the ICU and 88-percent capacity in the acute care units," Dr. Dzirasa said. "The number of hospitalizations we are seeing along with some preliminary case data from (the Maryland Department of Health) indicates we may be seeing more cases than last year at this time."

Dzirasa said the number of patients city hospitals are treating for COVID-19 has risen from 107 on Nov. 20 to 306 on Dec. 20, an increase of 185%.

Last week, hospitals statewide were directed to free up beds and delay scheduling non-emergency surgeries after Maryland reached 1,200 hospitalizations. When that total reaches 1,500, hospitals will roll out their pandemic plans, which require them to maximize surgical bed and ICU capacity.

As the city prepares for a winter surge, the mayor said, officials are working with the health department to distribute at-home test kits. He encouraged residents who are traveling for the holidays to get tested before their trips and afterward.

"We all want to be with our loved ones for the holidays, but it is crucial that we do not endanger those we hold dear in our hearts and those in our communities as a whole," Scott said.

Citing data showing that unvaccinated patients make up most of those hospitalized with COVID-19, Dr. Dzirasa implored residents to get their COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots if they haven't already done so.

"If you're eligible for a booster, get it immediately," she said. "We know that the immunity gained from the vaccination series decreases over time and getting that booster dose helps to holster our immune systems' ability to fight off COVID-19."

The mayor said getting the shots could be the difference between life and death.

"It will keep you alive, it will keep you out of our overcrowded hospitals, it will keep you off a ventilator," Scott said.

The mayor said he has asked Dr. Dzirasa to form a panel including business leaders to develop recommendations for a vaccine passport program in Baltimore, though the details have yet to be ironed out.

Scott said the group would discuss "what that would look like for us, looking at the best practices from around the country, how that has been working in some places and what hasn't been working."

City resident Claudette Glascoe said she thinks suspending parks and recreation programs is a good idea because it's unclear how many children have had their shots. She also supports vaccine passports.

"I think because most people, if they have had all of their shots including the booster or just the first two, I think we're not ashamed to validate it by showing you our card or something," Glascoe said.

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