The Maryland Department of Health is investigating a possible COVID-19 outbreak linked to the Cecil County Fair, which ran from July 23 to July 31.
Health department spokesman David McCallister confirmed Monday that an investigation is ongoing. He did not specify how many cases had been traced back to the fairgrounds or whether any of them had undergone genomic sequencing data to determine which strain of the coronavirus they were.
Gov. Larry Hogan visited the Cecil County Fair last Tuesday. His spokesman, Mike Ricci, said Monday that the governor has not been identified as a close contact of any of the infected individuals, is not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and has not been tested.
Cecil County, in the state’s northeast, has one of the state’s lowest vaccination rates with just over 41% of those eligible inoculated. It has a population of about 103,000.
The potential outbreak comes as Cecil and other Maryland jurisdictions see rises in cases, hospitalizations and testing positivity rates due to the circulation of the more contagious delta variant, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others consider more dangerous and more adept at breaking through the protection provided by vaccinations and antibody therapies.
The more people who remain unvaccinated, the more capable the virus becomes at mutating into new variants and finding hosts.
“Vaccinations remain our most important line of defense against COVID-19 and the highly contagious variants,” McCallister said in an email.
Maryland’s positivity rate stood at 3.23% Monday after declining to less than 1% about a month ago. The state has added hundreds of cases of the virus to its tally over the past several days, including more than 400 Monday. The hospitalization rate has nearly tripled in four weeks’ time.
Public health experts continue to maintain that not enough people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated and that delta and other COVID-19 strains will continue to spread and acutely infect those who remain unvaccinated. This includes not only those who are resistant or hesitant about getting immunized but also people with certain medical conditions, those who are immunocompromised and children younger than 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccinations.
As of Monday, 70% of the population ages 18 and older had received at least one shot of vaccine, according to the CDC, a milestone President Joe Biden’s administration initially sought to reach a month earlier. In Maryland, about 60% of the eligible population had been fully vaccinated.
The state and county health departments, Cecil’s among them, have been urging unvaccinated Marylanders to get inoculated against COVID-19 to slow the spread of the new variant. The health department even set up a space for visitors to get vaccinated at the county fair, though it’s unclear how many took advantage of it.
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In an interview last week with The Baltimore Sun, Cecil Health Officer Lauren Levy said the county’s relatively low vaccination rate, coupled with the spread of delta and the lifting of restrictions such as indoor mask mandates, has led to more cases and hospitalizations in Cecil, with patients skewing younger and some on ventilators.
“The vaccine is widely available in Cecil and throughout the state, and what we’re really trying to do now is increase the convenience factor for people,” Levy said. “We need to do what we know works to reduce transmission. Vaccination is the most effective tool, but face masks is another.”
The department issued an indoor masking recommendation for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals July 23, ahead of the CDC’s indoor mask advisory for certain areas.
The CDC latest guidance encourages residents in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission to continue masking, even those who already have been immunized.
On Monday, the federal agency listed Anne Arundel, Cecil, Charles, St. Mary’s, Prince George’s, Wicomico and Worcester counties as areas with substantial community transmission. Dorchester County had high community transmission, according to CDC.
The rest of the state has moderate transmission.
Areas with low rates of vaccination are more likely to see cases of delta emerge in infection counts, hospitalizations and deaths, but even highly vaccinated jurisdictions aren’t immune. As infections increase, so too will the level of “breakthrough” cases, or ones that surface in people who have been vaccinated, though they are not likely to result in severe infections.