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Maryland expands contact tracing as coronavirus hospitalizations drop below 1,400 for first time since April 20

On the same day that Maryland said the number of patients currently hospitalized because of the coronavirus dropped below 1,400 for the first time in a month, the state announced that its expanded contact tracing operation will be in place next week.

State officials reported the fifth straight day Thursday of declines in how many people are hospitalized with COVID-19 as that number fell to 1,374 — the lowest it’s been since April 20. Of those, 526 were in intensive care.

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Gov. Larry Hogan’s office is closely monitoring hospitalization rates as it determines when to take the next steps of Maryland’s reopening process. That tally has dropped in 13 of the past 15 days.

Marylanders can expect to possibly begin receiving phone calls from contact tracers as soon as next week, officials said as the state announced it is beefing up its case investigator network more than five-fold.

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Contact tracers interview those who known to be infected to find out who they’ve come in contact with and possibly exposed. People can expect to be advised to seek testing and self-isolate if they’ve come into direct contact with contagious upper respiratory disease.

A robust contact tracing operation is one of the pillars cited by Hogan needed for Maryland’s recovery and reopening, along with expanded testing, hospital capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment.

The state reported 1,208 new confirmed cases of the virus Thursday, bringing Maryland’s total count of confirmed infections to 43,531. Another 41 fatalities were added Thursday, though the date officials report deaths does not always reflect when victims died. The virus has killed at least 2,045 in Maryland, with another 114 new fatalities linked to COVID-19 but not confirmed by a laboratory test.

Thursday also marked the first day Marylanders were able to get tested for the virus without symptoms or a doctor’s order, prompting lengthy lines at a testing site at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

The state reported 4,903 test results Thursday — nearly 25% of which came back positives. During the pandemic, just under 20% of the more than 220,000 tests performed in the state have come back positive.

The expansion of the contract tracer network, from 250 investigators to more than 1,400, could allow officials to track up to 1,000 confirmed cases per day — and up to 10,000 potentially exposed contacts, the governor’s office announced Thursday.

Calls from contact tracers will appear on caller ID screens as “MD COVID.” Investigators will ask notified individuals specific questions about whom they may have exposed and where they have traveled. They will not ask for photos, payment or personal information such as bank account numbers, passwords or Social Security numbers, according to the release.

In compliance with federal and state privacy laws, investigators will not name any infected individuals as they notify those they may have exposed, according to the release from Hogan’s office.

Officials will log and sort the information from people who test positive in a data management platform called COVID Link, which all Maryland counties should have access to by next week. This will allow state and local officials to coordinate responses and manage potentially hundreds of thousands of data points.

In a statement, Fran Phillips, deputy secretary for public health at the Maryland Department of Health, encouraged Marylanders not to let calls from “MD COVID” go unanswered.

“Participating with the state’s contact tracing program helps keep you, your family, your neighbors, co-workers, and community safe from this disease," she said. "Working with our COVID-19 case investigators truly can help save lives.”

Infected individuals can expect to hear from a case investigator within 24 hours of receiving a positive test result. Officials will guide potentially exposed individuals in how to isolate at home and how to monitor symptoms.

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announced that he'll ease restrictions on retail store businesses and will reopen at 9 a.m. Friday.

Prince George’s and Montgomery counties remain the state jurisdictions with the most cases of the virus, with nine of the top 10 ZIP codes with the most cases between them. The 21224 ZIP code that includes Baltimore’s Canton and Highlandtown neighborhoods ranks seventh.

Despite accounting for only 27% of Maryland’s confirmed cases, those at least 60 years old are 88% of the state’s victims. Almost 30% of those at least 80 years old with a confirmed infection have died.

African Americans, 30% of Maryland’s overall population, represent 37% of the state’s infected and 43% of the state’s dead. Nearly 30% of Maryland’s infected are Hispanic, a group that accounts for only 10% of the state’s overall population.

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