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Maryland ramps up contact tracing as officials reports 848 new coronavirus cases, 43 more deaths

A nursing student give directions to a driver waiting to get into the cow palace at the State Fairgrounds for Covid-19 testing on the first day of open testing in the state.
A nursing student give directions to a driver waiting to get into the cow palace at the State Fairgrounds for Covid-19 testing on the first day of open testing in the state. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland health officials confirmed 848 new cases of the coronavirus and 43 more deaths due to the disease Tuesday as they opened a call center with hundreds of workers to contact those who have tested positive and those they may have infected. 

The idea behind so-called contact tracing is to break the chain of infection by asking those with the virus or who may have the virus to stay home. The state now has almost 1,400 people at the state call center and local health departments making the calls, which will be coordinated through a data management system. 

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Tuesday’s additions bring the state’s total to 54,175 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus and 2,474 dead due to the disease or complications of it.

While the increase in new cases halts four days of consecutive decreases, Mike Ricci, spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, wrote that the state has reached its lowest hospitalization rate in seven weeks, with 1,148 people currently hospitalized.

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While the total hospitalization rate decreased by 26 people, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units grew by two to 481 patients.

The test positivity rate also continued to decline, albeit very slightly to 10.54% overall statewide. The state’s rate is still among the highest in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University, and many health officials advise that states should reach a 5% positive test rate before relaxing actions taken to reduce infections.

Hogan hinted Tuesday morning that improving metrics could soon lead to a further relaxation of restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re going to be looking at continuing our safe, gradual and effective reopenings, and we’ll probably be taking a look at some of that this week and in the weeks to come,” Hogan told WBAL Radio host Clarence Mitchell IV on the “C4 Show” Tuesday morning.

He said since the state started moving into the first phase of his three-phase reopening plan in mid-May, hospitalization rates have decreased, the infection positivity rate decreased and access to testing has increased.

“I think we’re ready to take some further steps,” the Republican governor said.

He reiterated, however, his concern that protests in recent days may result in spreading the virus, as thousands of people were packed close together.

“Time will tell,” Hogan said. “It’s certainly still not safe to gather in large numbers in close proximity and we saw a lot of that.” At least, he said, many demonstrators have been wearing masks, “which helps protect people somewhat.”

Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Health said it is launching an educational campaign about contact tracing using social media, public service announcements and other means to alert people that calls may be coming — with “MD COVID” on the caller ID. The effort will stress the importance of following directions. 

Hogan named tracing as a pillar in his plan to reopen the state. The other pillars are widespread testing, sufficient protective gear for healthcare workers and hospital bed capacity. 

“Our new campaign will help Marylanders understand the contact tracing program and its role in reducing the spread of this disease,” Hogan said in a statement. “While we have taken a series of bold and aggressive actions to flatten the curve, contact tracing is one of the four building blocks needed to contain the virus and allow us to fully reopen the state.”

The statistics continue to show that a little more than half of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, 27,284, were diagnosed in the D.C. suburbs of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The two counties lead the state in confirmed cases.

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In addition, Maryland’s minority populations continue to be disproportionately affected by the disease. As of Tuesday, more than a quarter of all confirmed coronavirus cases, 13,901, were from Hispanic or Latino patients, despite the fact the demographic only constitutes roughly 10 percent of the population.

The 20783 ZIP code — which includes parts of Hyattsville, Adelphi and Langley Park in Prince George’s County and is majority Hispanic, according to censusreporter.org — leads the state in total cases with 1,921 cases, 30 more cases since Monday.

Black Maryland residents also have contracted the disease at a faster rate than whites, leading the state with 15,631 patients diagnosed with COVID-19. African-Americans make up roughly 31% of the state’s population while white residents, of which 10,603 have been diagnosed with the coronavirus as of Tuesday, represent about 59% of the state.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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