Amid an “alarming” increase in the rate of coronavirus infections in Baltimore, the city’s health commissioner urged people to heed the tighter restrictions the city has put in place to reduce the spread of the disease.
“This disease is real, and it’s dangerous to believe that you are immune or untouchable as it relates to COVID,” Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said Thursday at a news conference with Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
Baltimore’s COVID-19 positivity rate is on the rise. As of this week, city residents being tested for the virus had a 6.2% positivity rate, compared with 4.8% across the state, Dzirasa reported. The state’s rate has remained relatively steady as the city’s has climbed, she said, making Baltimore one of a handful of areas across the country seeing a “surge.”
The city’s rate increase led the mayor and health commissioner last week to ban indoor dining at bars and restaurants and order everyone older than 2 to wear a face mask in all indoor public spaces. Masks are to be worn outdoors, as well, in situations where social distancing of at least 6 feet is not possible.
“If you are outside of your home, keep a face covering somewhere on you at all times,” Dzirasa said Thursday. “If you’re close enough to say hello to someone else while you’re out, you should wear a face covering.”
Calling the city’s positivity rate an “alarming trend,” Dzirasa said Baltimore’s increase exceeds what officials would expect to see as a result of increased COVID-19 testing. The city’s seven-day average of new cases was 137 as of Wednesday. At the previous peak in May, it was 124. On July 24, the seven-day average for new cases per day was 126. In comparison, on July 5, it was 67.
“These are all significant increases that are not merely due to an increase in testing,” she said.
Dzirasa said she participated in a call this week with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, along with representatives from other hot spots, to discuss federal recommendations. No additional federal funding has been offered to the city, she said.
The increasing number of coronavirus cases statewide prompted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday to order an expansion of the state’s mask policy, calling for everyone older than 5 to wear masks inside all public buildings, including restaurants, houses of worship, gyms, casinos, stores and office buildings. The policy, which will go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday, also requires masks outdoors whenever it is not possible to maintain social distancing.
State health officials also issued an advisory cautioning Maryland residents not to travel to states where the percent of positive coronavirus test results is greater than 10%. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and Texas.
Public health officials have advised that a COVID-19 positive test rate should be below 5% before coronavirus-related restrictions should be lifted. Maryland’s seven-day average is just below 5%.
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On Thursday, Maryland reported 892 new cases and 10 new deaths. Hospitalizations increased for the third consecutive day. The total number of cases in Maryland has reached 87,177, and 3,357 people have been killed by COVID-19. While the number of people currently hospitalized has dropped significantly since a peak in April, that number rose Thursday by 14 cases from the previous day to 585.
In addition to Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County have seven-day average testing positivity rates above the recommended 5% rate as of Thursday. Baltimore County’s rate was 5.59%, and Prince George’s was 5.96%, according to the state.
Dzirasa said that the vast majority of people in Baltimore are heeding pleas to practice social distancing and wear face coverings, but the data indicates that not enough people are doing so.
Young and Dzirasa said they both continue to receive numerous questions from the public about how they can get around the face-covering order.
“I keep seeing people complain about masks and ask for exceptions to be made,” Young said. “Let me be clear: Coronavirus is not making exceptions.”
Young also warned that business owners must police their patrons if they hope to keep their doors open.
“If they want to keep their businesses open, they need to follow the rules set by this administration and our health commissioner, which requires masks and social distancing,” Young said. “If they don’t adhere to that, they will be closed.”