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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan gave remarks after touring a Gaithersburg-based biotechnology firm, saying the state would receive a portion of the country’s first COVID-19 vaccine doses.

A worldwide race to develop a safe and effective treatment for the coronavirus has accelerated in recent months, with some candidates gearing up for third phase clinical trials. This final phase is designed to confirm the safety and effectiveness results from the first and second phase trials.

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The level of effectiveness in a given vaccine has come into question as some medical and public health researchers say that even the flu shot does not offer complete protection and has several groups of people wary of using it. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert in the United States, has reiterated that mass participation will be required for a vaccine to work. Meanwhile, Americans' trust in vaccinations has plummeted, polling data shows.

A global group of virus experts warned Thursday about relying too much on the first vaccines to end the coronavirus pandemic. It will likely take many more months of manufacturing, administrating and cooperation, and likely won’t be permanently protective once administered.

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Maryland has a number of firms working on vaccine and therapeutic treatment options for the coronavirus, including at Novavax, University of Maryland School of Medicine and University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Hogan, on Thursday, said the state has an “unparalleled biopharma cluster” and has hoped, from the beginning of the pandemic, that it would play a role in treatment research.

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.

Hogan outlines state’s vaccine priority list

In Gaithersburg, Hogan said staff and residents at nursing homes and assisted living facilities would be prioritized for the first round of vaccinations, along with senior day care attendees and employees, health care workers, essential workers, public safety officials and educators.

He said these individuals are most at risk of contracting serious illness from COVID-19 and thus should receive the first vaccinations.

Ultimately, the federal government will decide the order of vaccine priorities. But experts, including those at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, have already published frameworks advocating who should get prioritized, which includes essential, front-line workers, older adults and their caregivers.

Mass vaccine distribution and administration could take months, even if a candidate is ready by the end of this year.

More contact tracing data unveiled

After previously declining requests from The Baltimore Sun to make more contact tracing data public, health department officials released figures Wednesday dating from early July through mid-August showing the workplace settings and other locations people reported going to within 14 days of their symptom onset or positive test result.

Of the people successfully interviewed by case investigators, 41% reported going to a state-defined “high risk location,” such as work, an indoor restaurant, an indoor retail shop, or a gym. People also reported participating in outdoor recreation, going to casinos or racetracks and going to outdoor restaurants before infection.

Hospitals and health care clinics, warehouses, offices, landscaping or construction sites and food establishments all ranked among the most popular workplace settings among people who tested positive.

Some people interviewed, about 13%, also said they attended a large gathering before getting sick. Of the 5,944 people who acknowledged attending a social gathering of more than 10 people, more than a third — 2,217 — said they went to a family gathering, while 1,188 reported going to a house party and 1,051 said they attended a large outdoor event.

Contact tracing, though tedious and time-consuming, can disrupt chains of transmission by helping people quarantine and identifying who else the person has come into contact with in a two-week period. But according to state data, about one in four people asked did not provide answers to questions about their workplace in the two weeks leading up to their positive test result or symptom onset.

School districts weigh options

New federal guidelines announced last week suggest that school systems might not be ready to introduce students back to schoolhouses unless more precautions — face masks, social distancing and cleaning — are in place.

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Still, Maryland’s 24 school superintendents have no clear benchmarks from the state or federal government to guide them in their decisions on when and how to start in-person learning, and must solely rely on their best judgment and the latest metrics released by the state’s health department.

Current guidelines say that if a county’s testing positivity rate is greater than 5% and the number of new cases is 5 to 15 per 100,000 population, a school district can choose to hold some in-person classes or instead allow only online instruction. Some experts said that’s too broad.

“The CDC should have issued direct and specific guidance — for example, a checklist of all the things that must be done to ensure safe school reopening,” said Dr. Leana Wen, who formerly served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. “This would have provided clarity and empowered local school districts and health departments to best protect students, teachers, families, and communities.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the state didn’t intend to dictate when schools should reopen.

State health and education officials “established metrics to help guide local reopening discussions, and not be overly prescriptive,” he said.

Dorm full of UMD students asked to stay inside dorm

Students at the University of Maryland, College Park living on campus in Denton Hall were asked by the university to stay put after 23 of its 247 occupied tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two weeks.

Those who tested positive were placed in official quarantine housing on campus, according to Hafsa Siddiqi, a university spokesperson.

The university is not calling the measure for the remaining dorm residents a quarantine, but “enhanced health precautions.” But it’s similar: They were told not to go to class or to cafeterias; they will be given meal delivery; and they were also given the option to go home.

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College Park is no stranger to public health crises. In 2018, a student died of pneumonia after contracting a serious case of adenovirus from her on-campus dorm. The campus has publicly battled mold, asbestos and heating and air conditioning woes.

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The state’s flagship university is among the few in the state that chose to return students to campus, though Prince George’s County, where the campus is located, has been the state most affected jurisdictions by the virus, with more than 28,000 cases.

The Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University and Loyola University Maryland are holding classes online only. Some campuses around the country and locally, including Towson University, have already canceled in-person classes after outbreaks.

High school sports get the green light

Hogan and Maryland State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon announced Thursday that high school sports teams can conduct abbreviated seasons starting as soon as Oct. 7 after consulting with parents and athletes.

Local school systems can make their decisions based on their metrics, they said, and training and conditioning opportunities can begin as soon as possible, Salmon said.

It follows just days after the Big Ten, which includes Maryland, unanimously approved starting its football season this fall instead of pushing it back to the spring. It received a mixed response, with some saying that the institutions prioritized revenue over student health.

Some student-athletes at the college level have opted out while others have played and gotten sick. The risk of contracting myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19, looms large, especially among children, whose risk of contracting the disease are not fully documented.

The Republican governor cited "record low positivity, record low number of [coronavirus] cases per 100,000″ and said the state’s "health metrics could not possibly be any better.”

“We think it’s really important to try to make efforts to get more of them back into face-to-face instruction and to give them the opportunity to have some of this sports activity that they also need,” he said.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Meredith Cohn, Liz Bowie and Tim Schwartz contributed to this article.

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