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Coronavirus in Maryland: 6 takeaways from the week

Much of the world woke up Friday to the news of President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis, a reality that has the power to upend normalcy and throw his reelection campaign into disarray.

The president’s close aide, Hope Hicks, has also received a positive diagnosis. Joe Biden, who debated on the same stage as the president on Tuesday, tested negative on Friday, he announced via tweet.

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It’s unclear how far into the federal government the coronavirus has spread.

Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan moved to loosen additional COVID-19 restrictions on Thursday originally meant to mitigate the spread of the infectious virus.

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In September, the state saw about 16,000 new COVID-19 cases. In August, health officials confirmed about 20,000 new infections.

The coronavirus reached its peak in Maryland in May, with more than 31,000 infections and at least 1,364 fatalities. The cases and death count have declined significantly ever since, but could surge again with the right mix of factors, public health officials say.

To catch Marylanders up on the stories they may have missed, here are six key points from The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus coverage.

Hogan moves further into reopening

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities may now allow visitors indoors, per Hogan’s Thursday announcement, on the condition that the spaces are not experiencing outbreaks and that the positivity rate in the jurisdiction remains under 10%.

Child care centers — financially strapped through much of the pandemic due to restrictions, rigid cleaning demands and class size reductions — can now have as many children in the room as allowed by their licenses. State schools superintendent Karen B. Salmon said she hopes the easing of limitations will eliminate the need for parents to turn to unlicensed providers who may be watching their children without the proper vetting in place.

It also comes as a relief for many parents who need to return to work. As schools remain closed, many moms and dads have been forced to step back from their workplace responsibilities to care for their kids.

During the question and answer portion of Thursday’s news conference, Hogan said he had consulted with his health advisers about preparing for flu season, but as of right now, Maryland’s "health metrics could not possibly be any better.”

On Friday, the state added over 712 new cases of the coronavirus to its tally as well as one new death. Maryland has the 27th-most cases per capita and 16th-most deaths per capita in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center. More than 3,800 Marylanders have died.

While state health officials measured Maryland’s testing positivity rate at 2.93% on Friday, Johns Hopkins, which also tracks positivity rates and calculates them in a different way, reported Maryland’s seven-day positivity rate through Thursday as 5.6%.

Crisis hotlines see alarming spikes

Calls to Baltimore’s crisis hotline have doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, data show, and mental health practitioners and suicide experts say they’re seeing alarmingly high levels of depression and anxiety among Marylanders since the outbreak started seven months ago.

Some say the social isolation, radical change and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus will exacerbate the suicide epidemic as well as substance abuse.

Baltimore’s hotline (410-433-5175), which recently rebranded as Here2Help, has experienced a spike in calls from about 2,800 in April to 5,700 in July, the most recent month for which data is available. Also since the pandemic hit, the number of callers threatening suicide soared, from about 75 to 380.

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Dr. Aliya Jones, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and head of the Behavioral Health Administration, said federal surveys show about one in three people in the state feel anxiety or depression over COVID-19.

“This will not last forever," Jones said in a recent interview. "If you are struggling, know you are not alone. Practice self kindness and know the help is available.”

For a list of places to seek immediate help, click here.

Decreased school attendance could lead to funding woes

Each student enrolled in a school translates to thousands of dollars of state and federal funding for not just that specific school but the district. But as the virtual school year continue, some students will remain uncounted — and the funding ramifications could be significant.

“This is a crisis for our public schools,” said Joe Francaviglia, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, a network of grassroots education advocates through the state.

He estimates that the Baltimore system alone could lose more than $100 million if the official enrollment declines as much as predicted. There, Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said about 79% of her district’s students are taking classes online, a number she said has risen from 65% over the month of September.

School systems are attempting to track down missing students, but officials say they are finding it difficult because the economic downturn has forced families to move or change phone numbers. And parents who aren’t home because they are working can’t make sure their children are online at the right time to access live, online instruction.

Better antibody tests coming

So far, antibody tests that look for markers of COVID-19 have been marred with errors and confusion, causing accuracy, cost and convenience problems for people looking to see if they have already been exposed to the coronavirus.

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, however, are working on the next generation of these tests that they hope to be less expensive, more accurate and can be done at home. Now, antibody tests require people going to get their bloodwork examined, but at-home tests made out of repurposed glucose monitors could require something as simple as a finger prick of blood.

The desired test can use a drop of blood, saliva or maybe other bodily fluid on a paper test strip that is inserted into a container and then into the monitor. If there are antibodies present, it sets off a series of chemical reactions then translated by the monitor.

The presence of antibodies can indicate if someone was infected recently, but do not indicate an active infection. They typically offer protection if they encounter the same virus again.

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But positive coronavirus antibody test does promises someone immunity from another case of COVID-19. Scientists do suspect survivors of the disease have some protection, but they don’t know how much or for how long.

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Once that’s sorted out, antibody tests could prove someone has immunity and could return to school or work. They also may be used to track the effectiveness of a vaccine.

Hey, kids: Remember to blink as you work at home

Guidance from the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends parents and children to anticipate the unintended consequences of digital learning and the effects it can have on the body.

That sentiment has been echoed by eye doctors in Maryland, who say they have fielded more questions and concerns about digital eye strain than usual from families as most school systems take the school year online.

Dr. M. Roni Levin, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said more screen time can lead to a slew of negative outcomes among children, including long-term nearsightedness, weight gain and increased likelihood to meet the criteria for attention deficit disorders.

She and other eye doctors recommend the “20, 20, 20” rule, or looking 20 feet away for 20 seconds for every 20 minutes looking at a screen. She also said people who spend more time on virtual platform should get accustomed to blinking more than they think they need to.

Eye doctors also recommend limiting computer, phone and tablet use to essential purposes and spending more time playing outdoors and engaging in offline activities.

“We are all adjusting to virtual learning, and obviously we have to weigh the risks and benefits,” Levin said. “Considering the public health issues, it’s important to stay socially distant. So, encouraging the blinking and spending more time outdoors are practical, and you can do both without spending lots of money.”

Should you celebrate Halloween? Experts weigh in.

For some, Halloween season starts with the first signs of fall. But now, with October officially underway, the holiday preparations have geared up not just for festive participants but for public health officials, as well.

This year’s Halloween will look and feel different from spooky seasons past. In Maryland, some local health departments have discouraged traditional trick-or-treating, encouraging people to minimize as much direct contact between one another as they can. Hay rides, haunted houses and house parties have also been categorized as high-risk activities and should be avoided without the proper social distancing and mask-wearing adherence in place.

But that doesn’t mean you have to completely suppress your inner goblin.

Some haunted attractions are offering drive-thru experiences aimed at providing people with frights from the comfort of their vehicles. Pumpkin patches, orchards and corn mazes are open and offering public-health approved ways to socialize and celebrate.

For families who do opt to trick-or-treat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “participating in one-way trick-or-treating where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard).”

This activity is considered moderately risky in the CDC guidelines, while traditional trick-or-treating, and trunk-or-treating, are marked as “high risk.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger, Christine Condon, Liz Bowie, Pamela Wood, and Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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