One million cases. Actually a total of 1,000,562 COVID-19 cases have been counted by Maryland health officials as of Friday, almost two years since the first coronavirus infections were found in the state.
The tally is surely far higher, as testing was largely unavailable in the beginning of the pandemic and at-home rapid tests are going under the radar.
And even with hopes high for a post-omicron spring, experts and observers say the million number is nonetheless a milestone of enormous and tragic proportions in a state of about 6 million people.
“It’s stunning,” said Beth Blauer, the data lead for Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. “I don’t think there is any other way to describe it.”
COVID-19 is no longer an abstract bogeyman but a familiar, if unwelcome, visitor. Most everyone knows someone — or is someone — who got the call with the news of a positive result or stared down a dark red line on a plastic stick, which would mean isolation at home, or worse, a trip to the hospital.
Blauer and others say the million-case milestone likely was reached some time back. Still she praised the state’s data collection efforts through difficult circumstances, such as gaining access to tests, getting people to report results and a cyberattack in December that cut off public case disclosures for a time by the Maryland Department of Health.
The department, still recovering from the hack, recently added 24,800 reinfection cases to the tally.
Blauer said the rise and fall of the numbers over time also “has shown how powerful a very contagious variant like omicron can be.” It became dominant in December.
Consider that it took 292 days from the start of the pandemic to log the first 250,000 cases, an analysis by The Baltimore Sun found. It took 257 days to top 500,000 cases and 122 days to reach 750,000 cases.
Hitting a million cases took just 53 more days amid omicron’s rapid spread.
With the largest surge abating, new cases are now reported daily in the hundreds rather than thousands, including 672 on Friday. That could mean the virus will become endemic, a disease that still circulates but doesn’t cause mass hospitalizations or deaths.
That may be the result of natural immunity after an infection and vaccinations. Maryland’s vaccination rate is relatively high compared with rates in other states.
About 74% of the state population is fully vaccinated (and nearly half boosted), compared with about 65% of the country (and 43.5% boosted), state and federal figures show.
That’s helping curb severe infections, though not all infections. The state counts about 13,828 deaths, up 15 from Thursday. There are 459 hospitalized Friday, 21 fewer than the day before and down from a pandemic high Jan. 11 of 3,462.
The nation has officially reported about 75.5 million cases and 936,000 deaths, though those numbers are surely far higher as well.
The infections also haven’t hit evenly by any measure. Minority groups were infected at far higher rates early on, and older adults made up most severe illnesses and deaths, a designation that now belongs to the unvaccinated.
The highest rates of infections overall are counted in more rural, white and conservative areas of the state in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
Dr. Greg Schrank, hospital epidemiologist for the University of Maryland Medical Center, said certain people will remain at high risk for severe disease and officials should ensure they have access to affordable, high-quality masks. He also emphasized equal access to rapid tests and newly developed treatments.
This becomes urgent with the relaxation of mask mandates in many counties and some schools, said Schrank, also an assistant professor of medicine in the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
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“The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many long-standing inequities and problems within health care delivery across the U.S. that have contributed to a higher burden of disease and death as compared to other similar countries,” he said. “We have an opportunity at this point to address these inequities more definitively, building upon the work of the pandemic response and the insights gained.”
Schrank said it’s almost certain that more challenging variants will emerge, and he believes the nation is far better equipped with the use of masking, improved ventilation, testing, vaccination and treatments.
But he and Blauer said preparation will remain critical to head off another major surge in cases that strains the health care system, as well as individuals.
Key factors, Schrank said, will be robust surveillance to warn of new variants and disease spread, clear metrics that would trigger a reinstitution of public health measures such as masking, and investment in public health and community-based programs to blunt the impact of the virus.
State health officials say they don’t intend to take their eye off the pandemic yet.
“As we emerge from the omicron wave, we continue to focus on getting as many Marylanders as possible boosted and preparing for the next potential developments in the pandemic,” said Andy Owen, a spokesman for the state health department. “We remain as vigilant as ever.”
Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley contributed to this article.