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Coronavirus patients in Maryland were on cruise ‘not affiliated with Baltimore,' Montgomery County health chief says

In light of three confirmed cases, Montgomery County officials address coronavirus concerns.

The three people in Maryland who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus had been on an international cruise that was “not affiliated with Baltimore,” said Dr. Travis Gayles, the chief health officer for Montgomery County, where the cases were reported.

The patients, a couple in their 70s and the unrelated woman in her 50s, were exposed to the virus while traveling internationally, officials said. They returned to Maryland on Feb. 20 and were tested this week for COVID-19 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the criteria for testing beyond its initial guidance to include those who had recently traveled to Italy, South Korea and Iran, Gayles said in a news conference Friday.

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“The testing guidelines did not change until this week,” he said. “That has evolved.”

The respiratory disease has sickened at least 100,000 across the globe and killed more than 3,000. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency when confirming the three cases Thursday, allowing Maryland to mobilize its emergency operations center and ramp up its coordination with local and federal agencies.

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Officials have released few details about the three confirmed patients in Maryland, such as their names, specifically where in Montgomery County they live, or exactly where and how they contracted the coronavirus, out of concern for their privacy. Officials also have not identified the hospitals where the patients were treated and where else they traveled.

All three are in isolation, and the state health department is investigating all of their recent contacts to ensure that anyone else who might have been exposed can be tested, he said. The patients appear to be recovering and did not have “anything more than minimal contact with school-aged children,” Gayles said.

“The three cases involved here are doing well clinically and for the most part their symptoms have abated,” he said.

The patients are not believed to have traveled to Washington, D.C., since contracting the coronavirus, Gayles said.

“As best as I can tell, I don’t believe so,” he said.

But Gayles pointed out that there might be more cases in Maryland than the three that were confirmed this week.

“We don’t necessarily have a fully accurate picture of what the incidence is,” Gayles said.

While fear of the coronavirus has prompted cancellations of events in Baltimore, schools and government buildings in Montgomery County will remain open, and the Maryland General Assembly does not plan to interrupt the 2020 session, officials said.

“Life does not need to be radically altered but we need to have a high level of awareness of what’s going on around us,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said.

He acknowledged, however, that the lack of a vaccine or a cure limits the ability to stop the spread entirely.

“The truth is, there’s not a lot you can do since there’s no cure," he said. “Don’t take chances in exposing yourself or exposing others."

Despite the state of emergency, the situation in Maryland “is not a crisis,” Montgomery County Council President Sidney Katz emphasized.

Still, Katz encouraged the public to stock up two weeks’ worth of necessities.

“Community members should not panic, but instead, prepare as you would for any event that would keep you home for at least two weeks,” he said.

Gayles urged anyone with plans to travel to an area affected by the outbreak to “be mindful” of any government-issued travel warnings.

The county has identified highly vulnerable populations, such as those in nursing homes and the homeless, and are working to ensure those groups get the information and disease-prevention measures they need, he said.

Officials began coordinating a coronavirus response in January and began holding weekly calls about the escalating global outbreak last week, said Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of emergency management.

Montgomery County’s goal is to ensure government services “stay as unfettered as possible,” Stoddard said.

“We believe Montgomery County is ready for this new challenge,” he said.

Gayles complimented the health care providers who tested the patients and said they followed all protocols to ensure they were not exposed to the disease.

“There wasn’t any negligence or dereliction of duty on their part,” he said.

Maryland Sen. Bill Ferguson spoke about the coronavirus as state lawmakers opened their daily session on Friday.

The Senate then gave final approval to Gov. Larry Hogan’s bill that would allow him to use up to $50 million from the state’s rainy day fund for coronavirus response. The measure now moves to the House of Delegates, which is also expected to approve the bill.

He urged them to practice good hygiene and reminded them that additional hand sanitizer stations have been installed throughout the State House complex in Annapolis.

Ferguson also reminded senators to get and share information from trusted sources, such as the CDC and the Maryland Department of Health.

Ferguson said it was not likely that the coronavirus would affect the General Assembly, which is scheduled to be in session through early April.

“This body and this chamber has not recessed early or adjourned early since the Civil War and so there is no reason whatsoever to think this year would be any different," said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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