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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

Maryland saw several days of high coronavirus case numbers this week, even as hospitalizations and deaths related to the illness stayed relatively flat or trended downward.

Still, however, the uptick hasn’t been as bad as in other areas of the country, which have become overrun with urgent care needs. Particularly, Florida, California, Texas and Arizona have emerged as the new “hotspots” as infections in the Northeast stabilize.

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But Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan warned that the state is far from “out of the woods” when it comes to the pandemic.

“It can happen to us,” he said of the spikes elsewhere.

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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.

Young adults in their 20s and 30s driving new cases

A Baltimore Sun data analysis shows young adults between 20 and 39 years old make up more than a third of all known coronavirus cases in the state and account for more than half of all new infections in the past several days. These two groups, with 11,972 and 14,183 respective infections, have climbed steadily since the beginning of May, outpacing all other groups. And cases among those in their 20s have spiked even more rapidly in the past week.

Public health experts say this trend proves worrisome given young people’s ability to spread the virus to more vulnerable populations. Young and old tend to experience the sickness differently, with adults over 80 making up the vast majority of deaths caused by COVID-19.

To reverse the spikes in young people contracting the virus, some recommend that bars, restaurants and other indoor venues should close temporarily until the metrics stabilize.

At a Wednesday news conference, Hogan urged young people to avoid “crowded bars, house parties and large gatherings of any kinds.”

“You are not only putting yourselves at risk, you’re also risking the lives of your parents, your grandparents and other vulnerable people in the community,” he said.

He cited the testing positivity rate among Marylanders under the age of 35, which is now 83% higher than among Marylanders who are 35 and older, and connected the rise in cases with the failure to comply with public health requirements in bars and restaurants.

Unemployment insurance woes continue to dog system

On Wednesday, Hogan and his administration touted the Maryland Department of Labor’s processing of over 96% of all unemployment insurance claims made in the four months since the pandemic reached the state. But that leaves several thousand people — about 24,000 — hanging in the balance.

Several of these people shuttered small businesses as a result of the pandemic’s economic chokehold, while others faced layoffs, furloughs and other disruptions to their income.

While Maryland’s unemployment rate remains below the national average, more than 624,000 workers have requested benefits since March. More than a billion dollars has been disbursed by the state government. Hogan said the agency’s work has brought the department’s backlog back to “pre-pandemic” levels.

But all this activity has overburdened the system, which had little time to expand its services and build a functioning web portal for people in need of benefits directly because of the pandemic. People have struggled with clogged phone lines, technical issues and long gaps between filing claims and receiving funds. And, as Hogan announced Wednesday at the Annapolis news conference, a group of unidentified individuals allegedly took advantage of the system overload to file thousands of fraudulent claims, requesting about $500 million in benefits.

The labor department successfully blocked the bulk of these false claims, Hogan said, freezing the accounts of several out-of-state filers. He said this affected few “real” people from getting their benefits.

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Debate about reopening schools

As President Donald Trump and federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos campaign for students to return to classrooms this fall, teachers unions and parents in Maryland have embarked on their own push to start the school year entirely online.

Meanwhile, several school districts across Central Maryland began to provide some clarity this week on their plans. Both Harford and Howard counties announced decisions Thursday to teach students virtually through at least late January.

A plan proposed by a coalition of the Maryland State Education Association, the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland PTA calls for all students to start the year with distance learning. Individual school districts can then decide if children and faculty should return to schoolhouses on their own timetables.

But a survey conducted for Anne Arundel County families shows about half of all parents preferring to send their kids back to school full time. And organizations such as The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools start with the goal of in-person classes when weighing reopening decisions, saying the benefits of in-person schooling far outweigh the risks.

Cheryl Bost, president of the MSEA, said the coalition would work to modify any plan set forth by Hogan and State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon that diverged from their preferences. An announcement from Salmon is expected next week.

Some elective surgeries resume, but at a jog, not a sprint

Hospitals and medical systems rely heavily on elective surgeries and other procedures to sustain their business models. But when the most lucrative part of health care ground to a halt in March to safeguard patient health, maintain provider safety and account for a possible surge in urgent care needs, medical facilities faced costly cash flow deficits.

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Now, with the state’s metrics stabilizing and hospitalizations significantly reduced as a result of COVID-19, many providers resumed offering elective surgeries to patients in May. But a treatment backlog has developed, and some medical professionals have expressed concern that the pausing of routine patient care will cause a dangerous surge of urgent care demand later on.

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After several weeks of reduced activity, “we now have large numbers of people who require semi-urgent and elective care,” said Dr. Robert Higgins, Johns Hopkins’ surgeon-in-chief. “Scheduling them has been our challenge.”

As the pandemic continues, hospitals, doctors’ offices and surgical centers have instituted new measures, such as limiting visitors and spacing chairs in waiting areas. In-person consultations are avoided if telemedicine appointments will do. Facilities sanitize surfaces regularly, require masks and test patients for COVID-19 before surgery.

But these new measures have costs, and to meet them, hospitals have resorted to furloughing staff or reducing pay. The Maryland Hospital Association estimated that the state’s hospitals would lose about $1 billion in revenue for April through June, or about a quarter of their normal revenue.

Rental assistance available in Baltimore

About 5,000 people in Baltimore have applied for financial assistance from the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. But hundreds of spots remain open for people who need help making payments.

The emergency aid resource has bandwidth to accommodate about 6,000 renters, according to the department, providing a projected average of $1,600 in assistance for rent owed in April, May and June.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said tenants must be current on their rent through March 31 to qualify, although the agency will now accept applicants who are up-to-date on a payment plan to cover rent owed before April.

Braverman said the goal is to get ahead of a wave of evictions that are expected to hit in the coming weeks. A moratorium has blocked landlords from being able to petition the court to kick their tenants out of housing during the pandemic, but that protection is expected to expire July 25.

Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Yvonne Wenger, Jean Marbella, Pamela Wood, McKenna Oxenden and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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