OCEAN CITY — In what he characterized as a “game changing step forward,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday announced the state has acquired the capability to conduct 500,000 coronavirus tests from South Korea.
Hogan on Monday afternoon announced the arrangement to secure the 500,000 coronavirus tests kits began weeks ago with 22 straight days of coordination with the state and the Republic of Korea along with the appropriate state and federal agencies. Operation Enduring Friendship, as the initiative is called, culminated with the landing of an Air Korea jet on Saturday at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, ironically formally known as Friendship Airport.
Hogan said the 500,000 test kits exponentially increase Maryland’s testing capability, which is a cornerstone of the state’s plan for an eventual phased reopening. Increased testing is one leg of a four-legged stool that also includes expanding hospital surge capacity, increasing the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), and building a robust contact tracing operation to connect the dots between patients and those with whom they might have contacted.
Among the four pillars, increased testing capability is likely the most important as a stepping stone toward a phased recovery in Maryland. Hogan said the acquired half-a-million tests from South Korea is equal to the testing capability of four of the five top states in the country combined.
“This weekend, we took a game-changing step forward in the state’s road to recovery,” he said. “We’ve been quietly working for a number of weeks on Operation Enduring Friendship with the Republic of Korea. On Saturday, the First Lady and I stood on the tarmac at BWI and welcomed the Air Korea flight, a flight with no passengers, but a very important cargo.”
Hogan said his Korean-born wife Yumi, the first Korean-born gubernatorial first lady in the nation’s history, was instrumental in brokering the arrangement to secure 500,000 coronavirus test kits. He spoke of the enduring relationship between South Korea and the U.S. forged during the Korean War and how that debt of gratitude has now been returned 70 years later.
“My wife has said she would not be here without the dedication of the American people during the war,” he said. “The state of Maryland now owes an incredible debt of gratitude to the Republic of South Korea.”
Hogan said the deal with South Korea cost around $9 million, which he said was a worthwhile investment considering the daily drain on the state’s economy during the crisis. Hogan did not specifically address plans to re-open Maryland, but reiterated securing 500,000 tests was a positive step in the right direction.
Late last week, Hogan said he intended to announce a phased plan for reopening the state’s economy soon and said details could be coming later this week. He did say any re-opening would only occur after a handful of indicators reversed direction including the number of hospitalizations, the number of patients in intensive care and the number of recoveries reported.
Hogan said the total number of cases in Maryland was not one of the figures followed too closely because that number will likely spike with the greatly enhanced testing capability. Hogan said when those key indicators dropped for 14 straight days, the early phases or reopening the state would take place. As of Monday, those key indicators continued to climb, however, certainly to a lesser degree.
“We’re hoping to see a downward trend, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re pleased that we’re starting to flatten the curve and this testing capability will greatly improve that. It won’t demolish the curve, but it will allow us to move toward re-opening in a safe way.”
During Monday’s press conference, Hogan fielded a question about a regional approach to re-opening as opposed to a one-size-fits-all plan for the entire state when the time is right. Over the weekend, state Republican leaders suggested some areas of Maryland could be re-opened before others in a regional approach based on case statistics. For example, while much of the densely populated center of the state is still very much a hot zone, while significant areas of western Maryland, southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, for example, are seeing much lower numbers.
Hogan said that approach is under consideration, but cautioned it could cause a setback in areas opened before others.
“It’s possible to do things from a regional perspective and that approach is under consideration,” he said. “What we don’t want is neighbors next door to come over and flood everything. That would be counterproductive and we don’t want any setbacks.”