The coronavirus pandemic is surging in Maryland, with daily cases, hospitalizations and the testing positivity rate reaching their highest levels in months Wednesday as some local officials discussed tightening virus-related restrictions.
Officials and public health experts are alarmed by the trends, which they say could indicate another virus wave. Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a pandemic preparedness expert, called on governments to consider rolling back some steps they’ve taken to reopen.
Maryland health officials reported 1,000 new coronavirus cases Wednesday — the highest daily total since Aug. 1 — and 10 more deaths tied to COVID-19.
The state’s seven-day rolling testing positivity rate was 4.1% Wednesday, up from 3.93% Tuesday and the first time the rate has been above 4% since Aug. 7.
And Maryland reported 595 people hospitalized, 33 more than Tuesday and the highest level since June 22. Hospitalizations have more than doubled since late September.
The rising hospitalizations most concerned Toner.
“If this surge we’re seeing becomes very large and hospitals become overwhelmed, we’ll see death rates soar,” Toner said. “What we need to do is contain this before the hospitals get overwhelmed.”
Citing an uptick in cases, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich proposed reimposing county restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order would include limiting gatherings to 25 people and capping capacity at 25% for fitness centers, food establishments, museums and art galleries, stores and religious facilities.
If the County Council approves the order, it would go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday. A public hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday, according to a news release.
“Without an ample supply of any treatment and without a vaccine, you simply cannot drive through these numbers and just take no steps at all to try and bring them back down,” said Elrich, a Democrat, at a Wednesday news briefing. “We can’t afford to have people die unnecessarily.”
In Baltimore County, public schools officials pushed back a plan to send some students and staff back to four schools for children with disabilities, pointing to the county’s rising positivity rate and increasing case counts. White Oak, Ridge Ruxton, Battle Monument and Maiden Choice schools had been slated to open their doors to students Nov. 16.
Maryland is in Stage Three of its coronavirus recovery plan, with Gov. Larry Hogan allowing nearly all businesses to operate at some capacity — though individual jurisdictions can be more conservative. When asked whether the Republican governor would consider reinstating more restrictions statewide, his spokesman, Mike Ricci, said “he certainly doesn’t want it to come to that.”
“But we are closely monitoring our metrics and consulting with our doctors and public health experts,” Ricci wrote in an email. "As the governor has been warning, our state is clearly not immune from the spikes that are sweeping across the country. We urge Marylanders to take this fall wave seriously, and to wear a mask, practice physical distancing, and recommit to the actions that keep us safe.”
Toner stressed that individual Marylanders have a role to play as well, saying that if most people reliably socially distanced and wore masks in public, reopening wouldn’t have to be dialed back.
“This is going to be a long struggle that will go on at least until the spring, and maybe beyond that, depending on when a vaccine becomes available,” Toner said. “We are likely to see this roller coaster activity that we have seen since the spring. We’ll see surges and they’ll decline.”
Research suggests cooler fall and winter air could increase the virus' spread and experts warn “pandemic fatigue” with masks and distancing may be setting in. Toner said the colder weather and the resulting increase in time spent indoors may be playing a role in the surge.
Since the end of September, the two-week average of daily new cases in Maryland has spiked from a three-month low of 488 on Sept. 30 to 824 as of Wednesday.
Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C., including Maryland, have seen virus cases increase in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center. Just seven states are seeing cases decrease and five states are seeing cases stay flat, according to Hopkins. Several states saw record high hospitalizations last week.
Maryland’s hospitalizations, while spiking, remain well below the late April peak of more than 1,700 patients. Among those hospitalized, 154 needed intensive care, up from 143 Tuesday. The state has seen ICU hospitalizations more than double since Sept. 20, when it reported 68.
Wednesday’s new numbers bring the state to a total of 148,766 virus cases and 4,025 deaths since officials began tracking the disease in March. The state has seen the 16th-most deaths and 32nd-most cases per capita among states, according to data from Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center as of Monday. Tuesday’s data was not available by the time of publication.
Among those reported Wednesday to have died from the virus were two Marylanders in their 30s, as well as eight in their 70s or older.
Cases are continuing to grow among younger Marylanders, with about 54% of new cases coming from those in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Meanwhile, those age 60 or older represented just under 17% of new cases reported Wednesday.
Many young people aren’t appearing to take the virus seriously, Toner said, ignoring mask mandates, especially while at bars, partying or socializing.
“Part of this is fueled by the fact that they don’t get very sick for the most part,” Toner said. “What they are missing are the effects their actions have on other people ... They really have a duty to others, to the common good, to adhere to these guidelines."
Older Marylanders have been killed disproportionately by the virus, as those 60 and older have made up more than 86% of total deaths statewide.
Baltimore City reported 165 cases Wednesday, trailed closely by Prince George’s County at 163. Montgomery and Baltimore counties followed with 153 and 126, respectively. Combined, those four jurisdictions accounted for nearly 61% of the state’s cases reported Wednesday.
Baltimore City’s testing positivity rate has spiked in recent weeks, going from below the state’s average rate to above it. The city’s positivity rate was 4.53% Tuesday, according to the state. On Oct. 18, the city’s positivity rate was 2.44%, compared to a statewide 3.14% positivity rate.
The city’s seven-day average case rate per 100,000 residents has more than doubled this month, from below the state average at 7.87 cases per 100,000 residents Oct. 16 to 17.11 Tuesday, well above the statewide average.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.