After being offline for more than two weeks due to a cyberattack, portions of the Maryland Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard returned to operation on Monday, and a top official said the agency has developed “workarounds” for most of the functions that were affected by the outage.
The updated numbers reflect a significant spike in cases and test positivity — a surge that a physician who serves in the state legislature said pointed to a dangerous time for the state’s hospitals in the weeks to come.
The department brought its systems back online just hours after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced that he tested positive for coronavirus.
The Dec. 4 attack left the agency unable to update some portions of the online portal it established in the early days of the pandemic. The department was able to report hospitalizations and vaccinations throughout the crisis, but not other data.
The lack of case count numbers and positivity rates left local health officials in the dark as to the full impact of the omicron variant and holiday travel. They knew from other metrics — hospitalizations, mostly — that the situation appears to be growing worse by the day.
From Dec. 1 through Dec. 20, Maryland reported 24,905 new cases, an average of 1,779 per day, though data for six dates are missing.
Over a comparable period in early November — before Thanksgiving get-togethers and holiday shopping — Maryland saw an average of just under 700 new cases per day.
The state’s rolling 7-day test positivity rate is now 10.27%, a dramatic increase from the 4.36% the state reported the day after Thanksgiving. For most of October and November, the state’s positivity rate was between 3% and 4%.
“Unless we take action soon, our hospitals are going to be very quickly overwhelmed,” said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a physician in the preventive medicine program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We are seeing rising rates even among those that are vaccinated — and this could tax an already-strained health care workforce that is barely holding it together right now.”
“This should be red-alert across the entire state,” he added.
The state is still unable to report updates on the number of people who have died due to COVID-19. Maryland’s official count has been frozen at 11,022 since Dec. 4.
Hogan has said little about the attack, though he has made cybersecurity a top issue as he broadens his profile beyond Maryland.
During a briefing for reporters, Chip Stewart, Maryland’s chief information security officer, refused to disclose details about the intrusion into the MDH computer network, citing the ongoing “criminal” probe being conducted by state and federal investigators. He would not say whether it was launched from overseas or whether a ransom payment has been requested.
“There is no evidence, at this time, that the incident resulted in unauthorized access to — or acquisition of — any data,” he said.
W. Lance Schine, deputy secretary of the Department of Information Technology, said health department employees were given “loaner computers” shortly after the attack.
“We are making good progress on bringing systems back online as safely and quickly as possible,” he added.
As the absence of updated COVID metrics stretched into its second week, state lawmakers voiced frustration with the governor’s low profile. Maryland Matters reported last week that key committee chairs were debating whether to hold a public hearing with top state health officials in December or wait until the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
The briefing and the restoration of data came just hours after Hogan announced on Twitter that he had tested positive.
“COVID numbers, we felt, were important for the public and we worked hard to bring up the numbers that we could,” said Schine. “Today was the soonest we felt those numbers were accurate enough to share with the public.”
Hogan, a cancer survivor, was been vaccinated twice and recently received a booster.
His spokesman, Michael Ricci, said Hogan is “feeling fine.” He is working at Government House, the governor’s residence, and holding meetings online.
Members of his executive protection detail have tested negative, Ricci said, as have family and other staff. “He’ll quarantine in line with recommendations from health officials.”
Hogan, who is tested regularly, tested negative on Thursday, Ricci said.
In an interview, Lam urged the governor to reinstate a mask mandate to slow the spread of the virus during the holidays and to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. But he expressed doubt that Hogan would go down that road.
“There are breakthrough cases all over the place,” Lam said. “We’re seeing rates that we haven’t seen since December of last year, and that was before the vaccine.”
Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) praised Hogan for being candid about his positive test result — and stressed that even people who’ve been vaccinated can become infected. “We know that breakthrough cases happen.”
Reznik had sent a letter last week to Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader seeking an update about the attack and indicating that health care providers had not been paid in connection to the breach.
Reznik said Monday that the updated metrics “confirm everything that we have feared — which is that things are moving in the wrong direction and quickly.”
Stewart said systems relating to Medicaid operations — including eligibility verification and provide payments — are back online, as are systems for issuing birth and death certificates.
By Bruce DePuyt