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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

The pace of new coronavirus infections and related fatalities may have slowed in Maryland, but the threat of a spike in cases remains very much intact, public health professionals say.

The state’s death toll passed 3,000 lives this week, and though that number may be difficult to visualize, it roughly equates to the number of lives lost during the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Meanwhile, more than 65,000 Marylanders have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with more than 10,000 people requiring hospital treatment.

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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.

Maryland’s numbers may have fallen, but other states’ have surged

Across the board, the key metrics that Maryland officials use to guide their decisions about the coronavirus have improved. Daily cases, hospitalizations, deaths and the state’s testing positivity rate have all fallen well below where they were even at the start of June.

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But elsewhere in the U.S., a resurgence of the coronavirus has ravaged communities. Florida, Arizona and Texas have been identified as the new “hotspots,” replacing New York and New Jersey as the epicenters of the virus. Houston, in particular, has fared especially poorly, with ICU bed capacity nearly at its limit as of Wednesday.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has handled the coronavirus differently than the governors of these Sun Belt states, and its initial response may have prevented the kind of spikes in metrics that are devastating others now.

But as travel between states becomes more frequent and standards relax in public spaces and indoor venues, the risks of regression prove high. Increased testing, contact tracing, personal protective gear and social distancing will ultimately be required until a cure for the virus is approved for mass production.

Staying safe while enjoying the relaxed restrictions

Hogan has stressed that just because parts of the state have reopened does not mean that people should rush to take advantage. The Republican governor has encouraged Marylanders to continue teleworking, congregating outdoors rather than indoors, and practicing social distancing and good hygiene whenever possible.

But with more Marylanders venturing to Maryland beaches and back to sit-down restaurants, medical and public health experts have suggested maintaining vigilance.

For example, diners who choose to eat at restaurants should try to sit outside and maintain a safe distance between other tables. Restaurant-goers should wear masks at the table, sanitize hands before and after the meal, and give careful thought to whom they choose to dine with, as people who have been exposed to the coronavirus do not always show symptoms and can transfer the virus through talking, laughing, coughing and sneezing.

Those who choose to vacation at the beach should take comfort in the virus’ relatively low transmission outdoors, but should still avoid gathering in close proximity with other beach-goers and sanitize shared equipment such as bikes, kayaks, paddle boards and golf clubs.

As far as lodging and accommodations, vacationers should be sure to wipe down communal items such as telephones, remote controls and light switchers, and be wary of gathering indoors with other guests in common areas, experts said.

Doctors, patients make the case for continued telehealth

Before the pandemic, medical professionals conducted some virtual appointments on a strict and limited basis. But when the outbreak forced hospitals to restrict patient access and compelled offices to close their doors, insurance companies capitalized on the moment to begin reimbursing providers for remote care.

The federal government, which runs Medicare and Medicaid for older adults and low-income earners, has waived member cost sharing until further notice and has allowed providers to conduct appointments over the phone. But this isn’t the uniform standard.

In fact, guidelines, policies and rates differ for insurance companies from one to the next, making the reimbursement process unduly challenging for physicians — some of whom have struggled financially due to the pandemic, as well.

MedChi, the state’s medical society, has lobbied major insurers such as CareFirst to revise their policies to reimburse providers using phone call appointments to accommodate patients with physical and technological limitations. The society has also called on the company to push back the end date of its member cost share waiver, which was originally scheduled for June but has been moved to July 24.

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Physicians and patients have also begun advocating for states to enact legislation that licenses them to resume some telemedicine procedures even after the outbreak abates. Virtual and audio-only appointments have proved especially effective for those in the behavioral health field providing care for patients who struggle with depression, severe phobias and substance abuse disorders. They argue sensible, convenient, and cost-saving treatment avenues show great promise for a post-pandemic world.

State senate leaders push for “hybrid” election

Primary elections in several states such as Kentucky, Wisconsin and even Maryland have highlighted vulnerabilities with the largely mail-in voting process. With some ballots delivered late, containing conflicting or incorrect instructions or simply never reaching their destinations, voters have faced major hurdles in getting to the polls on time.

In a country where voting access has disproportionately been denied to Black and low-income communities, this system can create problems — and long lines, a particular danger and inconvenience during an infectious disease outbreak — for those groups.

This week, Senate President Bill Ferguson and state Sen. Paul Pinsky, two top Democrats in Maryland’s legislature, called for the Maryland State Board of Elections to offer a “hybrid” general election model that still relies heavily on absentee and mail-in ballots but also provides for more in-person voting centers on election day. This could at least partially reduce the long lines at in-person polling centers and help restore some confidence in voters who waited hours on June 2′s primary election day.

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In their letter to the board, Ferguson and Pinsky said they expect election officials to improve communication with voters, advocacy groups and legislators in the fall, regardless of the election’s format. Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, said the board appreciated the “thoughtful” ideas of the Senate leaders.

Criminal justice system may be ill-equipped to handle vulnerable inmates

As new Baltimore Sun reporting reveals, some inmates in U.S. prisons and jails may be safer at home than in their cells as the virus continues to claim lives.

One inmate, Anthony Blue, a Marylander who had long maintained his innocence in a murder he said he did not commit, had a hearing set for April to undo his conviction. But due to the pandemic, officials postponed the hearing to a later date in May, which Blue did not live to see.

Blue, who suffered from blindness and schizophrenia, died from complications due to the coronavirus. He is the only known inmate to have died as a result of COVID-19 in the state, though several others inside the system, including guards, have contracted it.

When defense attorneys and activists called on courts to release some inmates from the system early on, Hogan said inmates were “safer where they are.” He noted how inmates in Hagerstown — where Blue had been detained since the 1990s — were helping keep the general public safe, producing personal protective equipment and sanitary supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer.

For inmates such as Blue who prove especially vulnerable to contracting serious illness as a result of the virus, home detention, parole and early release could ultimately save them from similar fates.

Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Phil Davis, Justin Fenton, Emily Opilo, Sameer Rao and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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