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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

Marylanders experienced a brief glimmer of hope this week when the state reported a days-long trend of declining new cases and the state made plans to ease some restrictions related to the stay-at-home order.

But the case and death counts are still climbing, with COVID-19 infecting nearly 30,000 people in Maryland and killed more than 1,400. Though this state has fared relatively better than others in its infection and fatality figures, medical experts and researchers warn that the stay-at-home guidelines and social distancing measures should resume until hospitalizations and intensive care cases trend downward for at least 14 consecutive days.

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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.

No Maryland student will return to the classroom this academic year

As the school year winds down, students will finish the term at home, Hogan and state schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon announced Wednesday. Maryland’s decision follows that of most other states, which had already decided to implement distance learning for the remainder of the academic year as a precaution.

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Though older adults and those with preexisting, chronic conditions remain most vulnerable of developing serious illnesses as a result of COVID-19, hundreds of children in the state have contracted the virus. Kids can also unknowingly spread the virus to their parents and older family members, making them potentially dangerous accessories to the virus’ continued transmission.

The decision did not come to a surprise for most teachers, administrators and parents. Now, schools must turn their attention to decisions on things like grading, proms and graduation while making plans for students’ eventual return.

School leaders are focused on boiling the curriculum down to the most essential elements — what do students have to know in each grade and subject — so that they’ll return to in-person instruction with as few gaps as possible.

As for families with children in day care, many must decide between paying their providers or risking their kids’ slot on the roster for next years. Tuition dollars at child child facilities have become all the more vital for providers, many of whom operate on slim profit margins and rely on weekly payments to keep the lights on. With no clear end to the stay-at-home restrictions in sight, and with the state’s limitations on providing care to only the children of essential workers for a fixed fee, many providers may have to shut their doors — for good.

Ocean City opens its beaches

Ocean City plans to reopen its beaches and boardwalk this weekend, a move that its mayor said would allow locals to enjoy more fresh air without defying the state’s social distancing guidelines.

It comes after state health officials confirmed the first cases of the coronavirus in Ocean City, according to the state’s ZIP code data. Officials reported 13 confirmed cases there on Friday.

Ocean City officials said businesses and hotels would remain closed, which some argue will limit crowd size. But officials also said they would not turn away out-of-town visitors or conduct license plate checks.

Seasonal beach towns such as Ocean City stand to lose critical sources of income this year as the tourism industry buckles under the weight of the stay-at-home ordinances. Often, just a few months of warm weather bring in the income necessary to withstand the rest of the year. A disruption to that financial cycle could threaten the longevity of many of the local businesses, hospitality sites and restaurants that prop up the city’s year-round economy.

“It kills me, because I’m a small businessman,” Hogan said Thursday in an interview with Barstool Sports.

But while officials in Ocean City might view the reopening of the beaches and boardwalk as a “baby step,” others, including The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, worry that the loosening of restrictions comes too soon, especially given the new cases surfacing in the city and in the surrounding areas such as Salisbury.

On Wednesday, Hogan said he’s worried about the implications of Ocean City beaches reopening Saturday.

“We are concerned,” Hogan said at a Wednesday news conference. “All of this is predicated on taking personal responsibility on following the public health guidelines.”

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Hogan lifted restrictions on outdoor activities, too

Even though he voiced some concerns about reopening Ocean City’s beaches, Hogan this week lifted the restrictions on outdoor recreational activities such as boating, hunting, fishing, golf, tennis and fitness classes.

Hogan said the easing of restrictions does not imply that large groups or crowds can congregate. Rather, he said standard social distancing practices still apply, such as refraining from assembling in groups larger than 10 and maintaining distance from others.

“I know how anxious people are to get outside, both for their physical and mental well-being, and we know that outside activity is safer than inside activity,” Hogan said during Wednesday’s news conference.

Certain groups, legislators and executives who represent the golf, boating and fishing activities had been lobbying Hogan to ease these restrictions. A Politico reporter even asked him about golf in April during a live interview.

But the governor said he consulted with his advisory team, too, made up of infectious disease experts and emergency room personnel, before conceding.

“We’re not flipping a switch," Hogan said Thursday. "We’re dialing things up, trying to get things back to normal in a safe and effective way.”

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State beaches and parks opened Thursday, and local governments can make decisions about their outdoor facilities at their own discretion.

Universal testing at nursing homes stalled as state starts issuing fines

After weeks of mounting pressure, Hogan pledged to provide universal testing at nursing homes and assisted living centers. But the process has been slow to roll out and plagued by logistical hurdles such as staffing and testing shortages.

These facilities have become particularly hard hit epicenters of the contagious virus, with data showing that they account for over half of the reported fatalities and thousands of the known cases in the state.

Even as the state pledges more resources to nursing homes and assisted living residences the Maryland Department of Health levied its first enforcement action taken against these centers since the outbreak began, a move that some said comes too late for the sick and dying and that others claim deflects blame away from national and statewide shortages of critical supplies.

The state issued a $10,000 a day fine against Sagepoint Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Charles County dating back to March 30, citing the facility for endangering its residents and claiming it did not provide staff with sufficient protective gear or testing and failed to separate those who tested positive for the coronavirus from the rest of the resident population.

In a letter to Sagepoint, Patricia Tomsko Nay, executive director of the health department’s Office of Health Care Quality, said the facility failed to implement an effective infection control program.

Sagepoint officials said in a statement they “strongly disagree with the findings contained in the letter, and we will be disputing them directly to the Office of Health Care Quality."

Vaccine and drug trials are underway in Maryland

Medical staff at the University of Maryland School of Medicine injected its first patients with a potential coronavirus vaccine this week, with the hopes of having a vaccine ready to begin using as early as this fall.

The expedited trial of the vaccine, developed by Pfizer Inc. and German biotech company BioNTech, is underway at the university and three other sites in the United States and Germany.

“We’re not skipping any steps, but we are speeding them up quite a bit,” said Dr. Kirsten Lyke, an infectious disease expert and the study’s lead investigator in Baltimore.

And some patients in the hard hit Prince George’s and Montgomery counties will use trials of Remdesivir to treat their symptoms, Hogan said this week. The drug, which helped patients recover during the Ebola outbreak, has been approved to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients as researchers continue to study its effectiveness.

Several universities and medical centers have been tapped to study the Gilead Sciences antiviral drug, including the University of Maryland School of Medicine. It remains too early to tell whether it has negative, long-term impacts on the body or side effects, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it due to early evidence and the high mortality rate among those suffering from COVID-19.

Now, 1,600 doses have arrived in the state, donated by Gilead Sciences. It remains the only clinically-studied treatment for the coronavirus and will become the standard of care for critically ill patients, medical professionals said.

Dr. Karen Kotloff, principal investigator on the remdesivir trial in Baltimore, said other drugs are in the works to treat COVID-19, and if another one is approved, they could work together in a sort of drug cocktail. Researchers are looking into the effectiveness of other antiviral drugs, but also anti-inflammatory drugs.

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance, Meredith Cohn, Jean Marbella, Liz Bowie, Lillian Reed, Phil Davis and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

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