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Top Hogan health adviser pushes back against Maryland governor’s latest coronavirus reopening decisions

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces a further relaxation of restrictions that were put into place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

A top adviser to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pushed back Thursday on the governor’s decision the day before to open the state’s restaurants, gyms and malls, saying the moves allowing indoor gatherings could erase progress on containing growth of the coronavirus.

The comments, written in a series of tweets and repeated later during a news conference, came from Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Inglesby said he agreed with the public health messages Hogan made at a Wednesday news conference, but not all of the following steps.

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Inglesby reiterated comments made by Hogan and Fran Phillips, the state’s deputy health secretary, that the “fight against the virus is not over” and “all of us have to exercise personal responsibility.”

“But I don’t agree we should end limits on indoor large gatherings,” he said in the posts. “We shouldn’t restart conventions. There’ve been outbreaks of COVID in indoor restaurants and bars, so they will also be higher risk. Casinos will also pose new risks unless major mitigation efforts made. Group gatherings are situations where this virus has great capacity to spread widely.”

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Inglesby pointed to other states that more fully reopened and are now seeing spikes in cases, including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas.

Maryland’s cases are “moving in the right direction” — 519 new cases were reported Wednesday — but Inglesby said they are not yet low enough. And there could be increased spread of the virus from recent large gatherings to protest police actions.

“We should wait to see how the state does in the coming weeks before making changes,” he wrote.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the administration appreciates Inglesby’s “help and guidance.”

“We continue to follow the safe, effective, and gradual road map that he and a number of other public health experts helped us develop, with public health protocols in place at every step,” Ricci said in a statement. "It is a cautious, data-driven approach, and as Dr. Inglesby notes, our key statewide health metrics continue to trend in a positive direction.”

Cases have been dropping in the state since late April, as have hospitalizations. Maryland reported Thursday that there have been more than 60,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 2,750 deaths.

Hospitalizations, which the Hogan administration has been following closely as it makes decisions about easing coronavirus-related restrictions, continued to contract for the 15th straight day, falling to 902 Thursday from 955 Wednesday.

Testing continues to expand, but the state’s testing positivity rate remains higher than what some public health officials consider ideal. Maryland’s positivity rate ticked up for the second day in a row to 7.25% Thursday after hitting a low of 7.15% Tuesday. The World Health Organization recommends achieving a rate of 5% or less before easing restrictions, though Hogan has said the state is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening of seeing a downward trajectory in the positivity rate below 15% for 14 days.

Inglesby said the state should ensure that there are no barriers to testing, especially for low-income people who tend to have jobs that put them at increased risk because they require workers to leave home. That means adding testing stations near job centers and specific neighborhoods.

He said widespread testing to identify the infected, tracing to identify their contacts and isolation continue to be key steps in controlling spread.

But Inglesby said individuals have other responsibilities, such as wearing masks when indoors and near other people outside. They also need to keep their distance from others because the virus is spread person to person. That includes at protests, which he said he supports, but fears will lead to a spike in cases.

To prevent that, he said, protesters should wear masks and keep their distance from others, if possible, and police should avoid locking people up in tight quarters or using tear gas that causes people to cough and spread the virus.

It will be clear in about four weeks if current protests have created a lot of new cases. That’s how long it might take for the virus to infect new people, make them sick and possibly hospitalized, and also for them to pass on their infections to others.

Inglesby said state officials have done a good job so far reminding people of precautions to take, including masks and distancing, and individual behavior will matter going forward. That could be the difference even in states that have widely reopened.

“Many states are seeing a second wave,” he said. “Not everyone is experiencing this the same way. Some states may never have a second peak.”

The country, however, is collectively still reporting close to 1,000 deaths a day, about a quarter of the daily deaths across the world.

Many countries are not reducing cases or are seeing a rise in cases, while only a few, such as New Zealand and Thailand, have reduced cases to zero.

“I’m kind of worried people have kind of accepted where we are as the new normal, and it’s not normal,” Inglesby said. “We still have time to improve our capabilities.”

Inglesby, who has become a high-profile commentator on the virus, said he initially tweeted after he was asked to respond to the steps taken by Hogan. He remarked further during a previously scheduled news conference Thursday afternoon.

Hopkins generally has been a global source of information on the virus, including through an online dashboard that has kept tabs on new cases and deaths. It shows the United States is responsible for about 2 million of the 7.4 million cases worldwide and more than 113,000 of the more than 418,000 deaths.

Countries and state have moved to reopen at different paces. Maryland initially was more cautious than many, but as key indicators such as the new cases and hospitalizations trended down, Hogan moved to lift restrictions. He lifted the stay-at-home order, imposed at the end of March, in mid-May and has since eased more restrictions.

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The governor laid out a timeline for further reopening the state from the pandemic-related shutdowns in his news conference Wednesday. The latest orders relate to indoor dining, outdoor amusements, indoor gyms, casinos and malls, as well as child care. All will be able to operate with restrictions over the next couple of weeks, provided local leaders go along with the decision.

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Baltimore City and several counties have opted to reopen more slowly, but, on Thursday, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties said they would allow reopening in line with Hogan’s orders.

“Moving forward at this pace carries some risk, but the confusion created by separate rules from the state and local jurisdictions does not work from a planning or a public health perspective," Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said in a statement.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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