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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 major takeaways from the week

As Maryland sees more confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and beefs up its social distancing ordinances to slow the spread, much remains unknown or unclear about the contagious illness, which has sickened nearly 550,000 people worldwide and caused some 25,000 deaths.

In Maryland alone, nearly 800 people have tested positive for COVID-19, though experts and researchers said the true number of infected persons is likely much higher due to insufficient testing.

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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.

No. 1: Maryland schools must adjust to online learning for at least another month — and it comes with challenges

State schools will stay closed for at least an additional four weeks under the orders of Gov. Larry Hogan and state school Superintendent Karen Salmon, who announced the extension Wednesday at a morning news conference. With remote instruction expected to resume next week, Salmon said she and local superintendents would work to ensure every child receives equitable access to education and fair, uniform standards.

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Remote learning transitions often take weeks or months, if not years, to solidify. Maryland school officials will have just days to iron out the details.

The transition poses unique and unprecedented challenges in every school district, but children in areas such as Baltimore will likely face even more of a burden. Most kids in the city’s school system come from low-income families, with about half qualifying for free meals. Some students may not readily have access to computers or online tools to facilitate remote instruction, a problem further exacerbated by the closure of the city’s public libraries.

Salmon also said the school systems will also create proposals for students with learning disabilities. Day care centers for children of essential employees can remain open, she said on Thursday, but ordered all others closed by Friday. Private schools are expected to follow the lead of their public counterparts.

Though Salmon and Hogan said they would like to see schools reopen in a month, both reiterated that the coronavirus outbreak could last longer.

“While it is too early to definitively say exactly when schools will reopen, we will continue to reassess the situation as we move forward," Salmon said.

When asked about the possibility of extending the school year into the summer, Salmon said her team is considering all options. This, too, creates major issues for working parents, especially those considered essential employees, who must also make time to help facilitate learning or find child care.

No. 2: Hogan closes “nonessential” businesses — but doesn’t call it a “stay-at-home” order

While other states such as New York and California have imposed lockdowns and stay-at-home ordinances, Hogan closed “nonessential” businesses Monday under an executive order. The move primarily applies to clothing and home goods retailers, hairstylists, barbers and salon employees, among others.

But the directive appears to come from a similar place of urgency as the full-scale shutdowns.

“We are telling you, unless you have an essential reason to leave your house: stay in your home," Hogan said.

Hogan’s administration followed guidelines set forth by the federal government, which permits health care workers, law enforcement, defense and intelligence agents, emergency personnel, food and convenience store staffs, transportation operators, communications agencies, manufacturers, bankers, financial processors and pharmacies to remain open. The order took effect at 5 p.m. Monday.

"Essential” professionals such as lawyers, therapists and accountants should work remotely when possible, he added.

Meanwhile, restaurants, bars and other alcohol distributors remain closed for dining purposes but can offer delivery or carryout services to customers.

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Hogan didn’t rule out imposing further social distancing orders. He said Monday he believes the state’s current orders “are more encompassing and perhaps more effective” than a shelter-in-place order, which can perhaps cause undue panic and worry.

No. 3: Hogan deflects president’s intent to open the economy “by Easter”

Compared to President Donald Trump’s inconsistent labeling of the coronavirus — referring to the disease as “a hoax” one day and “very bad” another — Hogan has worked to keep Maryland’s message focused on mitigation efforts and has mostly avoided criticizing of the president, who also is a Republican.

Hogan, chair of the National Governors Association, says he’s in constant communication with Vice President Mike Pence as well as other governors, mayors and executives across the country. He consults each day with a team of advisers with a range of expertise.

The president meanwhile, has signaled his intent to go against his advisers, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, considered the top infectious disease expert in the U.S. Fauci and Trump have sparred over the president’s proposed timeline, which he said aims to get Americans back to work by Easter.

In public appearances and televised interviews, Hogan often reiterates that he wants to refrain from “finger pointing.” But the Republican governor has also criticized Trump’s approach and rhetoric. He said the president’s conflicting messaging creates additional problems for state leaders on the front lines, as it sows confusion into whom — and what — to believe.

Hogan also said the president’s fixation on Easter proves arbitrary and “doesn’t match” the science offered by experts.

“Dr. Fauci gave us really clear, really concerning facts. We weren’t hearing anything like that from the White House," Hogan said last week in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “I’m listening to some of the smartest scientists.”

No. 4: MTA reductions illustrate possible trouble for essential workers

After a Baltimore bus driver tested positive for the coronavirus, the Maryland Department of Transportation temporarily shut down the Eastern bus division in the city for deep cleaning. (It was reopened Friday.)

But even as drivers look to slow the spread of the coronavirus, they have not been given protective equipment to wear, such as face masks or gloves. And during peak hours, as many as 40 bus operators shuttle passengers in the city’s four divisions. This means a heightened exposure risk not only for “essential” employees heading to their offices but also for the people responsible for transporting them to their workplaces, said Michael McMillan, president of the local union that represents drivers.

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As more transportation workers and essential employees come in contact the virus, more disruptions and forced isolation measures will affect daily life. Many do not have paid sick leave and might risk losing their jobs if they call out. Others might feel well enough to continue working but could still spread COVID-19 as carriers even if they do not show symptoms.

The challenges facing Maryland’s “essential” employees, especially those who can’t afford to practice social distancing, come as record number of state and national workers apply for unemployment benefits after losing their jobs or the demand for their services due to the coronavirus. Some 3.3 million Americans — including a record-high 42,000 Marylanders — have filed claims, creating a processing backlog that could pose delays of up to three weeks.

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted stark vulnerabilities in the nation’s workforce, manifested mostly along class lines. Those who can work from home can generally avoid social proximity while those who rely on public transportation face higher risks of infection and exposure.

No. 5: We don’t know for sure the number of COVID-19 cases — or patients tested — in Maryland

Nearly 600 Marylanders have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Friday, a number that increases exponentially almost every day. Two weeks ago, only five had received positive diagnoses.

But the rate and scale of infection could be misleading, as the total number of cases conducted in the state remains unknown and testing kits start to become more widely available. Previously, health care administrators reserved swabs for patients who had traveled from China or could prove they had direct contact with someone who had tested positive. The protocol expanded once the virus spread throughout the U.S. and elsewhere.

Maryland officials also previously disclosed the full testing numbers but no longer do so. Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said this week that the department also ordered private labs to report negative tests “so that we get a better picture of the positivity rates.”

To date, five individuals with the coronavirus have died in the state, all with underlying health conditions. Infants and minors in Maryland have also contracted the disease, with the majority of people with positive cases in their 40s. Those over 60 and with chronic health problems such as heart and lung disease or diabetes still remain most susceptible to developing a serious illness associated with the coronavirus, though the disease has killed patients around the world of nearly every age group.

Likely, many more people have the virus than what the data show, since testing still proves hard to come by and some might not seek out swabs without showing symptoms. The asymptomatic among us pose perhaps the greatest threat to the illness’ longevity, which is why officials have hammered home the idea of long-term social distancing.

If the state continues to see more positive cases and ensuing serious illnesses, the healthcare system will almost undoubtedly face drastic ethical and moral decisions regarding the allocation of acute care beds, staffs, personal protective equipment and ventilators, which all remain limited in supply. Though some hospitals have created makeshift spaces for beds in parking lot tents or started constructing new units specifically for COVID-19 patient care, the race against the clock has already effectively begun.

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