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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

The Sun’s health reporter Meredith Cohn on how you go about getting tested for COVID-19 and the survival rate of patients that are put on ventilators.

Maryland’s coronavirus case count continued to climb this week as statewide testing expands and officials target efforts toward essential workers who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

The caseload grew tenfold over the month of April, state data show, and more than 1,000 people have died due to complications from COVID-19. Hospitals have seen spikes in patients, with over 1,700 people currently occupying beds.

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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.

Universal testing at nursing homes finally becomes a reality

After hundreds of deaths and weeks of public pressure, Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday ordered the state to test all residents and staffs at nursing homes and assisted living facilities to curb the rate of infection among these groups.

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It comes after revelations that about 50% of the state’s confirmed deaths from COVID-19 have been connected to nursing homes. And at least six nursing homes have more than 100 cases, according to the state data. All told, there are 24,000 Marylanders living in nursing homes.

State officials acknowledge that asymptomatic carriers have likely brought the coronavirus into senior living facilities, where it then spread among vulnerable people like wildfire. But hampered by a shortage of test kits, the state did not commit to supply universal testing for several weeks.

Expanded testing capacity can reveal more cases as well as new areas of exposure around the state, which medical experts say is critical to flattening the curve and, ultimately, lifting restrictions. The results can also help nursing administrators make decisions about staffing, rooming and protocol.

Lawmakers call for Maryland to cancel rent, mortgage payments

Democratic lawmakers in Maryland called on Hogan to cancel rent and mortgage payments for residents in need of financial relief amid the coronavirus outbreak as the economic fallout continues to take its toll.

About 380,000 Marylanders have applied for unemployment benefits since the outbreak crept into Maryland and shuttered parts of the economy, with 37,000 people filing claims in the last week alone.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s faulty online portal has caused added strain among those seeking unemployment benefits, a problem the state identified this week and vowed to fix in the early hours of the morning to prevent users from experiencing delays and crashes during normal business hours.

Hogan said Thursday “his heart goes out” to people who are struggling to apply for unemployment benefits. He said that in one five-day period, 250,000 people tried to file for benefits in Maryland.

“It’s frustrating to me that some people are waiting way too long and the system was not able to handle” the number of applicants,” Hogan said.

When asked about rent and mortgage relief, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci did not commit to take the proposal under serious consideration. Rather, he said the administration appreciates the “ideas and input” from the lawmakers.

“Back in mid-March, the governor issued orders prohibiting evictions and utility shutoffs, and he has extended those orders to June 1,” Ricci said. "He also enacted a financial relief package to stop foreclosures and prohibit repossessions, and worked with banks across the state to provide financial relief to borrowers. We continue to explore ways to help Marylanders get back on their feet as we plan for the recovery.”

Juveniles released from detention centers as coronavirus spreads behind bars

Officials released 200 youths from state detention centers this week in an attempt to protect more inmates and guards from catching and spreading the virus.

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More than 200 individuals within the state’s criminal justice system have contracted COVID-19, a phenomenon which some have attributed to close quarters and a scarcity of supplies with which to combat the coronavirus inside facilities.

Some advocates said the release of nonviolent inmates and those charged with misdemeanors should set the tone for the future.

“Advocates have been calling for these changes for years.” Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the Juvenile Division of the public defender’s office in Baltimore, said of state officials. “Let’s hope when the crisis abates, the realization that kids never belong in cages doesn’t go away as well.”

With the prison system comprised of mostly black inmates — a group that appears to contract and die from COVID-19 at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups — calls to free up space in the system and send people home have mounted from defense attorneys, the ACLU, lawmakers and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

Since the new coronavirus swept into Maryland in force in March, the state has released more than 2,000 inmates, some awaiting trial, who were judged as low-level threats to the community, and others who were nearing the end of their sentences.

Some, including The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, argue that keeping low-level offenders out of prison is an approach that should continue even after the pandemic subsides.

An usual election comes and goes without major glitches

Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume recaptured his former seat this week in a bid against Republican Kimberly Klacik in the 7th Congressional District, which he will hold at least until the end of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term in 2021.

Mfume will run again to stay in the position for the seat’s next full l in the upcoming June primary. He will face off against other Democrat and Republican contenders for the new term, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and Democratic state Sen. Jill Carter.

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Mfume, who left his position in Congress to head the NAACP in 1996, won about 73 percent based on the ballots that had been counted as of Friday. In a district of about 500,000 eligible voters, over 130,000 voters cast ballots, though the official number will likely be higher once all mail-in votes are added to the tally.

Aside from conflicting instructions about postage on the mail-in ballots, Tuesday’s election came and went without any major glitches or challenges. Voters were strongly encouraged to vote by mail, and they largely listened — just over 1,000 voters cast ballots at in-person voting centers Tuesday.

Hogan said the state will again encourage as many voters as possible to vote by mail for the June 2 primaries, which will select nominees for president, Baltimore’s mayor and other key races. Limited in-person voting will be offered for those who need assistance voting or who do not receive ballots in the mail.

Outbreaks at meat processing plants could threaten food supply

The Eastern Shore town of Salisbury — and its population of about 32,000 — made national headlines this week when the New York Times reported that it had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country.

Some 1,800 people have contracted the virus, according to The Times, though their report factors in the Salisbury metropolitan statistical area, which includes the surrounding towns and also parts of Delaware.

Still, local leaders said the majority of cases stem from poultry workers, a huge part of the area’s workforce. Hogan said at a Wednesday news conference that over 260 poultry workers in the state had tested positive.

The news comes as a new executive order signed by President Donald Trump compels meat processing facilities to remain open for the long haul, identifying them as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure to prevent them from closing. Slowdowns or closures of such plants could precipitate national meat shortages, officials said.

Maryland will roll out a mass drive-thru testing operation this weekend at Perdue Stadium, specifically for meat and poultry workers. Meanwhile, the union that represents meatpackers across the country has called for elected officials to identify these employees as first responders so that they qualify for expanded testing and other resources to combat the spread of the virus.

Hogant acknowledged the tension between keeping families fed and workers healthy.

“Some of it is problems with distribution. Some of it is simply people rushing out and hoarding … People should just buy what they need and not be wiping out the shelves,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Luke Broadwater, Emily Opilo, Scott Dance and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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