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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from this week

Researchers agree that the elderly are more likely to die if they catch the coronavirus.

The coronavirus continues to dominate the news cycle in Maryland and around the country as the number of known infections rises and the nation grapples with the severe economic fallout.

While Maryland has not yet experienced its peak, medical experts say, it will likely see a surge in patients seeking hospital treatment for COVID-19 in the next few weeks. This means some hospitals might face tough decisions as resources, staff and capacity remain limited.

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To keep Marylanders up-to-date with the week’s most pressing takeaways, here are five key points from The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus coverage.

Black Marylanders infected with and dying of COVID-19 outpace other racial groups

Maryland officials released for the first time Thursday a breakdown of the state’s COVID-19 cases by race, though limited to black, white, Asian, not available and “other” groups. The data show black residents make up a majority of cases and related fatalities, a disparity playing out across the country.

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While researchers and scientists remain mostly in the dark about the new virus, some believe the differences among races point to decades’ worth of structural racism ingrained in health care and access to treatment. Plus, much of the state’s black population help make up the essential workforce, a group without much ability to work from home and avoid catching the virus.

Maryland Del. Nick Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat running for City Council president, has been leading the push for the state to release a racial breakdown for weeks. He said while the numbers should guide the state’s response moving forward, the health department should also consider offering a breakdown by ZIP code to illuminate how cities such as Baltimore can better protect vulnerable groups.

“Each day that goes on without that data, we’re just delaying the development of an effective and equitable solution,” he said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also referred to the data as “troubling” Thursday. About 30% of Maryland’s overall population is black, according to U.S. Census data, but the racial group makes up nearly 50% of coronavirus patients whose race was known.

While race data is not available for nearly 22% of Maryland’s confirmed cases, Hogan said Tuesday he is directing the state health lab to report such data from its tests and “be as proactive as anyone in the nation” in pushing private labs to do the same.

At the same time, some elected officials said rumors about who can catch the coronavirus remain pervasive. Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott said he continues to hear people spout the myth that black people can’t contract the virus.

“I need every, every, every single person in Baltimore to understand COVID-19 is real, and I need black people in Baltimore to understand it 10-times over,” he said.

While the state is taking more actions to protect nursing homes, COVID-19 is already widespread there

On Sunday, Hogan issued an executive order aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in nursing homes and followed up on Tuesday with the creation of “strike teams” to help support such facilities. But by that point, the virus had already invaded at least 90 of Maryland’s 226 licensed nursing homes.

The order mandates that the state expedite the testing of “symptomatic” nursing home residents, staffers wear personal protective gear and create designated areas for those suspected of having the disease.

Yet much of the order doesn’t address existing mitigation problems associated with the coronavirus and nursing homes: that asymptomatic residents and staff can also spread the virus; that personal protective gear remains in limited stock everywhere; and that some nursing homes simply do not have the space or bandwidth to fully isolate residents with COVID-19.

Fran Phillips, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, said the state is not able to test asymptomatic staff because of a national shortage of tests.

Hospitals are actively preparing for the worst

Given patient surges in other states and researchers’ predictions for the Maryland region to become an “emerging hotspot” for COVID-19, medical systems and health care providers have begun preparing for a 100% to 200% jump in normal demand for services, medical professionals said.

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Bob Atlas, CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said while hospitals remain able to handle the caseload, they are also ramping up capacity and adding about 100 specialized tents to house patients.

It will take a while to understand when the cases have peaked, he said, at which points new cases will drop.

He said provider networks such as the University of Maryland Medical System, MedStar Health, LifeBridge Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine are all coordinating patients within their systems, as well as with state health and emergency management officials.

For example, Dr. Mike Winters, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and emergency medicine physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said the system’s 13 hospitals have organized an incident command task force, with commanders at each hospital.

UMMS has plans in place to use different units as intensive care units when the need arises. Reducing elective surgery across the hospital network has aided with this reallocation plan.

“Each of these surges has defined triggers for when we open each unit and when staffing will change,” he said.

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Dr. Laura Pimentel, also an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and emergency medicine physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said while emergency departments across the system have not been busier than usual, the mix of patients has changed, with about half being seen for COVID-19-related complaints or concerns.

So far, there has been an increase in inpatient critical care, which could be a result of patients seeking care for severe symptoms that went untreated when they were mild, she added.

Online learning could extend for several months

State schools superintendent Karen Salmon said Wednesday parents and students should be prepared to have virtual schooling extended through the fall or winter if the coronavirus continues to spread unabated or it makes a resurgence.

While much about the virus’ timeline remains unknown, schools and universities have shifted to holding classes online. If that practice continues, it could further exacerbate problems like unequal access to technology and gaps in teachers’ training for distance learning.

Some low-income students likely do not have the same access to broadband Internet or technology as their more affluent peers. Students with learning or behavioral disabilities will also be without the qualified professional help they need for months longer than normal.

This can create disparate outcomes in learning with the potential to affect students’ education for years.

A global pandemic hasn’t slowed Baltimore gun violence or helped with existing police staffing shortages

While total reported crime — and property crime in particular — has dipped, Baltimore’s pervasive gun violence has continued even under a stay-at-home order. Compared to this time last year, Baltimore’s homicide count is up by one.

But crime in the city could also be exacerbated by the virus’ ripple effects. Supply shortages at food stores can leave many without enough food to feed their families. Many workers have been let go or furloughed from their jobs, making a paycheck-to-paycheck existence all the more complicated. Without having to report to school or work, many kids and young adults have little supervision throughout the day. And without places to retreat, many families can find themselves trapped with dangerous relatives.

Baltimore Police must also handle the dual challenges of quelling crime while maintaining social distance from fellow officers. Many in the criminal justice system have tested positive for COVID-19, with an entire police district headquarters temporarily shutting down for cleaning. An already short-staffed force will face ongoing obstacles as more officers test positive for the coronavirus and daily crime continues at its usual rate and scale.

Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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