Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, said Tuesday that she strongly recommends everyone wear a mask indoors regardless of their vaccination status given a large rise in COVID-19 cases in the city.
She stopped short of seeking a new mandate for masking because community transmission in Baltimore, as well as all of Maryland, is still considered low by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ll start with a recommendation, and if the need arises and we continue to see this increase we will have a consideration of reinstating that mask order,” she said.
“This is not a mandate. This is a warning.”
Case are rising rapidly in the city and state, though they are nowhere near the pandemic peak in January, Dzirasa said.
The city has been averaging 180 new cases a day for the past week — an increase of 243% in the past month. But that’s a small fraction of the daily cases reported in January when cases exceeded 1,900 a day.
Hospitalizations, a key factor in the CDC’s assessment, remain relatively low in the city with 83 people in hospital beds with the coronavirus. That’s up 28% in the past month but also well below the January peak of 950, city data shows.
Public health officials believe many cases are going unreported because people are not testing or they are testing at home with rapid tests. But the relatively low hospitalization rate likely indicates vaccinations and boosters, as well as prior infections, are keeping many people from developing severe illness.
Dzirasa said there has been a significant increase in cases among young adults and she said the city would roll out a new campaign at movie theaters to get the group vaccinated.
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But she urged everyone to get vaccinated and boosted to protect themselves and stem spread of the disease. She noted a high community vaccination rate would protects young kids, under age 5, who remain ineligible for vaccination, as well as older people who tend to lose immunity more quickly.
The health department warning comes as the city faces a surge bigger than the state as a whole. The rate of infection in Baltimore is about 150 per 100,000 people, six times that of the state.
Around Maryland, there were 1,626 new cases reported Tuesday, also far below the pandemic peak in January above 15,000 daily cases, state data shows. Just over 300 people were hospitalized.
Public health leaders continue to implore people to not let their guard down, though officials like Dzirasa say they understand that people want to return to social activities and summer vacations. She said to remember that “outdoors is always safer.”
While hospitalizations and deaths have not jumped like cases, the omicron variant now circulating is highly contagious and with bigger numbers of cases more people will get very sick.
In its regular report on COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security notes that the country is on the cusp of a grim milestone in the pandemic — 1 million reported deaths across the country, though some believe that threshold already has been crossed.
And what’s to come? Hopkins experts say the country needs to brace for an even larger rise in cases in colder months this fall and winter due to waning immunity, a public weary of prevention measures and new variants.