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Maryland lawmakers press coronavirus testing questions as health officials offer update during ‘lull’ in the pandemic

After weeks of seeking information on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland lawmakers heard Wednesday from top health officials. But they didn’t get all the answers they wanted, particularly on testing.

Members of the General Assembly’s COVID-19 work group focused on the pace of testing, including among nursing homes residents who have made up the bulk of state deaths. But they also were interested in testing for vulnerable populations in prions, factories and senior living complexes, where testing has been slower.

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State health department officials did not offer specific timelines but said they were expanding testing and outreach at Eastern Shore poultry plants and in larger jurisdictions. Such efforts, officials said, also could help with disparities in the impact on minority populations.

Testing also has been expanded to regular citizens with no doctor’s note.

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The state for the first time reduced its positivity rate, a measure of the presence of coronavirus, below 10%. It had been national high above 20%. Experts say it should be below 5%.

The state has exceeded its goal of administering 10,000 daily tests and is working toward 20,000 a day, which officials said is needed to keep tabs on the virus.

“Why is the testing goal only 20,000 a day?” asked Sen. James Rosapepe, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “Would that put you on the low end of what’s recommended? And is the problem related to demand or supply?"

Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips said she thought 20,000 was “robust” number.

“We know weren’t not done yet,” Phillips said. “We are looking at perhaps the end of the first wave. We know there is not a vaccine on the horizon any time soon. ... We are digging in for a very long campaign.”

Lawmakers have been critical of the Maryland Department of Health and Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration for what they call a lack of transparency about the state’s response to the pandemic. House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she still expected responses to questions lawmakers have submitted to the department.

Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall excused the delay, citing how busy the department has been.

“Really, this is the first lull were we’ve been able to talk to you about this 100-year event,” Neall told the work group via audio conference. “Ten weeks ago, we started to combat this pandemic literally from scratch.”

The officials reported encouraging trends: New cases and hospitalizations are down, testing is increasing and there is more protective gear ahead of a potential second wave.

Total beds used by patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have trended down since late April and stood at 1,109 on Tuesday. Hospitals added the 6,700 worst-case-scenario beds inside hospitals, at other sites such as the Baltimore Convention Center and in specialized tents that could be needed during another wave.

Supply chains are loosening and serious voids of protective gear are closing, officials said. The state has acquired 1,200 ventilators, 6.4 million N95 masks and 8.7 million KN95 masks, 23 million surgical masks, 17 million gloves, 1.2 million face shields and 2.1 million gowns.

“There is a great deal going on with" personal protective equipment, said Dennis Schrader, the health department’s chief operating officer. “We’re starting to see critical flow after many weeks.”

Phillips suggested the state would stockpile tests and other supplies in preparation for potential future waves.

“What we’ve been assembling now ... are components to sustain Maryland for what we’re seeing ahead might be a rocky period in the fall," she said. "We’re using that judiciously.”

Officials also are distributing Remdesivir, a drug found to benefit the sickest COVID-19 patients. Federal authorities sent Maryland 30 cases with 1,200 vials in mid-May, which went to hospitals based on patient counts. More shipments are expected.

A program also launched this week for contact tracing, which is locating those infected and their close contacts and isolating them. About 1,400 tracers will work in a state call center and at local health departments, and are expected to contact up to 10,000 people daily. An educational campaign will encourage people to answer their phones and cooperate.

As for what the trends mean for the state’s continuing steps to reopen, the lawmakers heard from Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins’ Center for Health Security and an advisor on the virus to Hogan.

He generally approved of reopening measures, though he warned the virus is not gone. He said masks and distancing remain important, "and just because something is open doesn’t mean it’s totally safe to go there.”

Inglesby said large gatherings to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis posed risks for new infections that won’t be seen right away.

As for further steps, he said the next decisions are harder. It’s not clear how to keep teachers and families safe if schools reopened, though the threat to schoolkids was likely low. Same for risks from university dorms and gathering places, dine-in restaurants and concerts.

“I feel the state is moving in the right direction” Inglesby said. “But we still have people getting sick and dying of COVID-19. Like every state, we’re trying to find a balance with people getting back to their lives and jobs and stopping the terrible economic losses. I think every state is struggling with that.”

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