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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

Jaclyn Phelps, a registered nurse, administers a coronavirus test Thursday, July 23, 2020, at the Anne Arundel County Health Department headquarters in Annapolis.
Jaclyn Phelps, a registered nurse, administers a coronavirus test Thursday, July 23, 2020, at the Anne Arundel County Health Department headquarters in Annapolis. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Maryland saw a slight uptick in confirmed cases of the coronavirus this week. But the testing positivity rate has remained mostly level.

Meanwhile, infections across the United States continue to spike. On Thursday alone, states reported a combined 71,700 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins data.

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But due to national testing delays, the case count may not even reflect what’s happening now (more on that below). As states continue to base decisions off their metrics, they could be working with stale numbers.

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.

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Some Maryland jurisdictions tighten restrictions

Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County broke from other jurisdictions this week, tightening restrictions on mask-wearing, indoor dining and social gatherings as county leaders point to rising metrics.

In Baltimore, which has suspended indoor dining for at least two weeks and expanded mask-wearing requirements in public, the testing positivity rate has climbed to about 9% overall. In Canton, the positivity rate was recorded at over 15% on Thursday. Many bars and restaurants there have been forced to close down temporarily in recent weeks as employees became infected.

Baltimore County started enforcing face coverings in all indoor public spaces Thursday, but stopped short of scaling back indoor dining. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said such a step needs to be mandated at the state level.

And in Anne Arundel County, which announced its new measures Thursday, the executive order places limits on evening indoor hours at bars and restaurants, closes seating in mall food courts, and establishes stricter penalties for violations. County Executive Steuart Pittman said the restrictions would help the county stave off an outbreak that could close the region down.

These piecemeal efforts followed a written request to Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration from county health officials, imploring the state to scale back its reopening measures. Hogan cited each county’s ability to go at its own speed and declined to impose statewide restrictions that would have overturned the reopening stages.

Ultimately, residents of each county can easily travel to jurisdictions with looser restrictions to take advantage of the freedoms there. But Hogan, at a news conference Wednesday, urged people to act responsibly.

“I want to make clear to the people of Maryland again that this crisis is not over,” the Republican governor said. He urged Marylanders to continue to wear masks and avoid public transportation unless necessary, and reminded people they are “safer at home.”

Schools superintendent gives districts ‘flexibility’

At Wednesday’s news conference, State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon said local school districts would have autonomy over the school year. But, they would have to follow a set of “guardrails” set forth by the state.

While school districts can control when to reintroduce students and faculty to the physical classroom, they must follow protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also must adhere to local health department measures and factor equity concerns into their plans.

Schools must have children and staff wear masks inside, transport kids to and from schools in compliance with CDC guidelines, and track attendance. Extracurricular activities and sports must also adhere to state and local rules.

Salmon said each district should work to get children back to school buildings as quickly as possible when safe. Many jurisdictions have already announced plans to start the year virtually.

School districts have until Aug. 14 to develop and submit education and recovery plans to the Maryland State Board of Education for review.

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Testing delays pose problems for Maryland’s recovery plan

State health officials said Marylanders should expect to wait five to seven days to get their COVID-19 results back should they choose to get swabbed. But public health experts said lag times longer than two days hampers the use of testing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Backlogs at large, commercial labs such as Quest Diagnostics have caused delays across the country as some states experience hikes in demand for tests, Maryland Department of Health spokesperson Charles Gischlar said. Only some labs are able to return results within 48 hours.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who also previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, said results should be delivered at the point of care, with the maximum delay shortened to two days. Otherwise, contact tracing loses its mitigatory power, as people who test positive but don’t have symptoms keep the chain of transmission active.

Other people might not be able to discontinue normal, daily activities until they know for sure that they have tested positive. Some employers require hard evidence, and delayed results mean some workers can spread the virus in the office in the interim period.

Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said there are two approaches to curbing this infectious disease exist. The first method requires shutting the country down and requiring people to stay at home. The alternative, which the country has largely adopted, allows the U.S. to function with some normalcy on the contingency that timely testing and contact tracing become norms.

“We are functionally only expediting testing for the sickest patients,” Nuzzo said. “It’s becoming too late to be considered useful.”

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Hogan defends election plan

Hogan drew criticism from advocates, voting rights groups and Democrats earlier this month when he called for normal, in-person operations for November’s general election, against the advice of local and state election officials who recommended a primarily mail-in process. On Wednesday, he emphasized that all eligible, registered voters would receive an application for an absentee ballot but would also have the option to vote at the polls.

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Hogan said he based his decision off the “rampant” problems with the June 2 mostly vote-by-mail primary — including ballots sent to the wrong places and long lines.

He said debate over the structure of the Nov. 3 election has been bogged down by “partisan” skirmishes.

Meanwhile, local election directors have said they don’t know how they can open enough polling places to pull off such an election in the midst of the pandemic. And many poll workers, several of them older adults and retirees, have already said they plan to sit this election out.

It takes about 25,000 judges to run an election in Maryland, elections officials said in a letter to Hogan. On Thursday, David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, said the state should anticipate a 35% vacancy rate in judges.

“A 35% vacancy rate so close to Election Day ... is an emergency for the local boards,” he said.

Maryland’s counties and Baltimore City are short nearly 14,000 election judges and “it’s becoming impossible to fill all of these vacancies” during a pandemic, the state elections board was told Thursday.

Hogan said the structure of the Nov. 3 election was designed to offer flexibility to voters. He said voters were “strongly encouraged” to vote by mail and urged elected leaders to stop the political “nonsense.” He said he will probably vote by mail, too.

Ocean City cases rise

With summer tourism in full swing, Ocean City has seen many restaurants and bars close down temporarily as workers become infected with COVID-19.

New cases in Worcester County, where the beach town is located, have risen faster this week than almost any other jurisdiction in the state, although infection rates there remain far lower than in much of Maryland.

In Ocean City’s ZIP code alone, 38 people had tested positive as of the end of June, but that number jumped to 113 as of Tuesday.

Ocean City’s spike in cases comes about two weeks after Independence Day celebrations drew plenty of people to the beach. Local officials said the uptick is not surprising given the crowds that flock there during the busy season.

But the state’s data may not fully reflect the scale of any outbreaks in Ocean City. Maryland reports its cases based on where the infected person resides. Vacationers who contract the virus at the beach are likely to realize it only after returning home.

Meanwhile, people who live and work in Ocean City said vacationers have let their concerns about the virus fall to the wayside.

“It’s the wild west,” said Timothy Friedman, a server at Blu Crabhouse and Raw Bar in Ocean City, which voluntarily shut down after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. “Go to Ocean City. You’ll see how many people just don’t care.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Lillian Reed, Talia Richman, Jeff Barker, Christine Condon, Sanya Kamidi, Meredith Cohn and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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