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Baltimore County Health Director Gregory Branch tests positive for COVID-19

Baltimore County Health Director Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch, center, stands beside County Executive Johnny Olszewski, right, during news conference on the first case of the coronavirus in the county. A county spokesman on Thursday confirmed that Branch has tested positive for COVID-19.
Baltimore County Health Director Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch, center, stands beside County Executive Johnny Olszewski, right, during news conference on the first case of the coronavirus in the county. A county spokesman on Thursday confirmed that Branch has tested positive for COVID-19. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County Health Director Gregory Wm. Branch, who has led the county’s fight against the coronavirus, has tested positive for the illness caused by the virus, officials said Thursday.

Branch was tested at a county clinic after he recently experienced a mild cough and throat irritation that affected his speech, county spokesman Sean Naron said Thursday.

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Branch “experienced a minor voice loss,” Naron said, but the doctor is doing well and working from home during his self-isolation.

“He’s in good spirits and he continues to participate in day-to-day county business,” Naron said.

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Branch said in a statement Thursday that he does not know exactly how he contracted the virus, but he called his diagnosis “a stark reminder of how contagious COVID-19 can be.”

“I will continue to rest and recuperate at home, but would like to use this opportunity to remind everyone that this disease is still very much with us and that we are all susceptible. We must take every precaution to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” Branch said in a statement.

Baltimore County is one of the hardest-hit regions in Maryland during the pandemic, trailing Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. State health officials reported Thursday that Baltimore County has recorded 11,615 cases and 523 deaths from the virus.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said in a statement that the county is praying for Branch’s “full and quick recovery.”

“From the beginning, he has been bravely leading the County’s response to the crisis and I am grateful for his ongoing service,” Olszewski said. “As Dr. Branch has said, this is another stark reminder that we are all at risk and must take every precaution to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.”

While hundreds of health care workers have died of COVID-19 according to a tally by Kaiser Health News, there aren’t many publicly reported cases among public health officers. In June, The Daily Astorian newspaper in Oregon reported that the public health director for Clatsop County tested positive for the virus. But Adriane Casalotti of the National Association of County and City Health Officials said there are no estimates for how many workers have been infected or whether any of them are health directors.

Adequate staffing is one of the challenges facing health care workers during the pandemic, Casalotti said. Health departments, for instance, have to quarantine both infected personnel as well as the personnel who worked with the infected employee.

Health departments nationwide have also lost a quarter of their workforce in the past decade, Casalotti said, making it harder for health care providers to respond to public health emergencies in general. With this in mind, Casalotti expressed gratitude to the health care workers and urged residents to listen to public health leaders.

“When your whole job is to try to intervene in this pandemic, it certainly puts you at increased risk just because you can’t step back,” Casalotti said. “This is when health department staff and officials step forward.”

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Branch’s case exemplifies how the illness is affecting “real people.” More than 87,000 confirmed cases of the virus had been reported in Maryland as of Thursday.

“While the data is certainly important and it drives our decisions, Dr. Branch’s illness and the illness of so many Maryland residents are not just numbers on our dashboards,” Dzirasa said, wishing Branch and others recovering from COVID-19 a speedy recovery. “They are real people whose illnesses are affecting their lives and the lives of their loved ones.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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