As protests pick up across the United States in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to highlight the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the coronavirus pandemic continues to disproportionately infect and kill people of color.
In Maryland, Black people make up about 30% of the population but account for more than 32% of the COVID-19 cases and 41% of the related fatalities. Hispanic and Latino Marylanders constitute about 24% of the infections and 12% of the deaths despite making up less than 10% of the state’s population.
Such disparities are playing out across the country, with Black people and communities of color having less access to health care and more responsibility to serve on the front lines of the public health crisis. As the calls for racial justice grow louder, so too do concerns about health, wealth and livelihood among those who have lost loved ones to the infectious disease.
In Baltimore, a majority-Black city, more than 14,000 cases have been confirmed, over 6,800 among Black people alone, leading all other racial and ethnic groups, according to city health department data.
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.
You should get a flu shot
The start of flu season typically begins with fall weather, and despite the possible changes to your hygiene habits, medical experts say you should not skip the vaccine this year.
Even though more people have transitioned to remote work and are practicing more social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing than in previous years, treating flu patients in addition to COVID-19 patients could strain the health care system.
The flu season usually starts earlier in the Southern Hemisphere and travels north. Fewer people are traveling this year, but the illness, if contracted, can still pose a problem. The CDC estimates there were up to 56 million cases and about 62,000 deaths last year (Hopkins data shows COVID-19 deaths now exceed 179,000, making it more deadly by comparison).
Getting vaccinated for the flu could lower its severity and keep people out of hospitals, which helps keep bed space available for COVID-19 patients and lowers the likelihood of people getting sick in doctor’s offices and waiting rooms. While the sites of many mass flu shot opportunities have been eliminated this year — such as offices and schoolhouses — drug stores and pharmacies are starting to stock vials.
You should cover your nose
Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, the old adage goes. But new research from Johns Hopkins University shows that there’s particular value in using a mask to cover your nose as a way to block the coronavirus from spreading.
The olfactory cells that allow people to smell are a key entryway for the coronavirus, the study shows, which might explain why some COVID-19 patients lose their sense of smell and taste when they contract the illness. The preliminary findings, if true, could pave the way for the development of more combative COVID-19 preventative measures such as soaps and creams for the nostrils.
The coronavirus can not only enter the body through the nose, but exit that way. When wearing a mask, scientists and researchers recommend using one that fits over the nose and using it when within six feet of other people. The risk of contracting the sickness goes down dramatically with proper mask wearing and social distancing, the Hopkins researchers said.
Colleges and universities face high stakes decisions
Students came back to Towson University for the start of the semester only to find out Wednesday that all learning, with the exception of a few classes, would be conducted remotely. As a result of a number of coronavirus cases surfacing over the weekend, the university closed several residents halls and sent many students home.
Refunds will be issued to students who already paid for on-campus housing and dining plans for the fall term, Towson University President Kim Schatzel wrote in an email. On-campus housing costs will be reimbursed 100%, a Towson spokesperson said.
But students who live in off-campus housing may not have the same flexibility to get out of their lease agreements, and some will be on the hook for monthly rent for another 10 months.
Meanwhile, other universities are forging ahead with plans to conduct some classes in person and have some students live on campus.
Coppin State University, which begins its semester on Aug. 31, has athletes, freshmen and some out-of-state students living in residence halls. The historically black institution, which will transition to virtual learning after Thanksgiving, is placing its hopes on students to follow health guidelines and limit their off-campus travels to make it through the semester.
The state’s flagship institution, University of Maryland, College Park, also plans to have some in-person classes after two weeks of virtual learning and has welcomed some students back to campus already. But as proven in Towson’s case, all it takes is one outbreak for plans to change.
New benchmarks for public school reopening
While all Baltimore-area schools have decided to begin the school year virtually, Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday strongly encouraged them to bring students back to the classrooms this fall — even offering financial incentive to do so.
The state unveiled a new set of guidelines that say jurisdictions should have the ability to hold at least some in-person instruction as long as guidance is followed on mask use and social distancing if their testing positivity rate is under 5% and their new case rate is less than 15 per 100,000 people. All 24 school districts in the state currently meet that mark, Hogan said.
If the positivity rate were to rise by 1.5 percentage points within two weeks, schools would have to consider reverting to more hybrid or online instruction.
“Some of the county school boards have not attempted to develop any safe reopening plans that would bring any kids back for any form of in-person instruction,” Hogan said at a news conference. “This is simply not acceptable.”
Ultimately, the decisions still must be made on the county level.
The announcement drew condemnation from the state teachers’ union, which said the state shouldn’t have waited just weeks before class began to offer these guidelines.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. also criticized Hogan and state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon.
“Now, days before schools open the Governor and Superintendent Salmon have finally released guidance, while dangling $10 million to convince historically underfunded systems to open—whether they’re ready or not. That’s not leadership. Maryland students and families deserve better,” he said in a tweet.
City suspends recycling pickup until Nov. 1
The coronavirus has posed a number of problems for essential workers, and solid waste crews especially have carried the weight of the pandemic on their shoulders. Outbreaks and illnesses have led to employee shortages, and those who have continued to show up to work have had to pick up the slack.
On Thursday, acting director Matthew W. Garbark announced that the city would suspend recycling pickup so that workers could focus solely on trash collection. City data shows service completion rates have dipped from the same time last year, and a surge of callers have been seeking information from the department.
The city can’t afford to fall behind on trash collection, said Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who leads the City Council’s public safety committee. Trash pileup can not only attract rats, insects and other animals but also lead to surges of violence and cause injuries.
He called on the labor unions representing the workers to fight for better wages and more competitive benefits to address the employee shortages and for residents to dispose of their waste products.
“With the staffing challenges that covid exacerbated, there certainly needs to be a renewed push to increase the salaries of these workers,” the District 5 councilmember said. “It’s our turn to collectively pitch in and do our part to help them.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Liz Bowie, Taylor DeVille, Emily Opilo and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.