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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

As new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to trend downward, Marylanders are looking ahead to the start of a new school year and a fast-approaching general election contest.

But those two major focal points have been met with fierce debate about how to proceed from people on both sides of the political spectrum, as COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, upends normalcy and forces educators and elections board officials to rethink how to teach, learn, vote and count ballots.

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Meanwhile, the state’s testing positivity rate, as measured by both Maryland health officials and the Johns Hopkins University, has remained under the recommended 5% for about a week — which could imply that the coronavirus has minimized in scale here. But positivity rates (as described in more detail below), are just one metric out of several required to judge the severity of the illness, and could be misleading if an unrepresentative sample of people seek out tests.

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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Local leaders raise possible contact tracing shortcomings

Late last week, five county executives and Baltimore’s mayor — all Democrats — wrote a joint letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Health outlining possible flaws in their collection and handling of contact tracing data.

The local executives said the state’s investigators should ask about additional COVID-19 symptoms in their interviews; publicize more data about the work settings and occupations of those infected; and make known the relationships between people who test positive and their contacts.

The signees were Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. The letter marks yet another public rift between county leaders and the Republican governor, who have diverged on reopening policies and strategies since Hogan lifted some restrictions and began reopening parts of the state’s economy in the spring.

Vocalizing support for raw data files sent to each jurisdiction, the executives also asked to see the projections being used to predict trends in the fall and winter, during which time flu season ramps up and public health experts caution could lead to a spike in cases and a strain on the health care system.

The signees requested the information before Aug. 24, ahead of the new school year. This way, potential outbreaks at sites including schoolhouses, child care centers and college campuses can be quickly identified and mitigated.

Johns Hopkins report shows who might get vaccinated first

In the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, scientists and medical experts have been working to produce a safe and effective treatment that could prevent people from contracting COVID-19 and minimize its severity.

But even if (yes, if) a vaccine is ready by next year, public health and medical experts say it could take longer to mass-produce enough vials to meet the demand.

A new report published by Johns Hopkins scholars at the Center for Health Security describes how vaccines should be distributed based on ethical frameworks, with consideration given to particularly vulnerable groups, people with ready access to health care, and essential workers.

It also underscores the importance of getting vaccines to some of the groups that suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths, including people living and working in nursing homes, prisons and shelters, as well as people who perhaps were not included in the early stages of pandemic planning such as rural Americans and people living on reservations.

The Hopkins team also looked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic flu vaccine guidance to inform their work and acknowledged that their recommendations could change as more information about the coronavirus comes to light.

The first human trial to evaluate a candidate vaccine against the new coronavirus has begun in Seattle.

Eligible Marylanders will receive extra $300 in unemployment benefits

Eligible Marylanders receiving unemployment insurance benefits will receive an extra $300 now that the state’s application for federal funds has been approved. It’s half the amount that people received from Washington throughout much of the pandemic, but could provide at least some relief for unemployed workers.

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People applying for unemployment insurance in the state are eligible to receive as much as $430 per week for every week they are without work from the Maryland Department of Labor. The $600 weekly bonus from the federal government expired in July, leaving those strapped for cash even worse off than before.

It comes as eviction cases mount in local courts and families struggle to put meals on the table, as evidenced by the overwhelming demand voiced by local food banks and donation centers and the hectic wait times experienced by the hundreds of thousands of people who applied for benefits in the state.

“Half a loaf is better than no loaf,” said Daraius Irani, chief economist for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. “But people may find they’re not able to make ends meet and will have to make some hard choices.”

These $300 bonuses come from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, also known as FEMA. State officials said the new supplemental benefits would be paid in late September, retroactive to the week ending Aug. 1.

Maryland came in last of all states in getting unemployment payments to applicants in a timely fashion during at least one month this summer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Maryland ballots to be counted starting Oct. 1

In anticipation of a flood of absentee ballot applications and ballots, Maryland’s elections board unanimously decided Wednesday that vote counting will begin Oct. 1, the earliest start in the nation.

It follows weeks of infighting, indecisiveness and inflammation of the discourse surrounding the mail-in voting system, which has become the preferred mode of many states due to fears about congregating in highly populated places during the pandemic. Weighing in last week, President Donald Trump threatened to withhold additional funding and election assistance for the U.S. Postal Service to sabotage mail-in voting, which he has repeatedly slammed as fraud-ridden (the president cast a vote-by-mail ballot in Florida this week).

The move by the state board of elections was made in hopes of speeding up the canvass, which, like June’s primary, could last several days or even weeks nationwide. Election officials expect 50% of voters in Maryland to participate via mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. Also, turnout is anticipated to be high for the presidential race.

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The state board also announced additional drop boxes would be available for ballots and chastised certain local boards that had not submitted information about the number of judges they still need and an assessment of their Election Day voting sites.

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Results will be embargoed until election night at 8 p.m., when in-person voting centers close.

A note about positivity rate data

For months, Maryland health officials’ positivity rate data has conflicted with that of Johns Hopkins, which examines figures from 52 states and territories and evaluates how many are under the recommended 5% threshold.

For the first time last weekend, both entities calculated the testing positivity rate under 5%, though Hopkins’ assessment still remained higher than Maryland’s. Each uses a different data set; while Maryland relies on assessment the total number of tests administered — including more than one swab administered on the same person — Hopkins measures the number of people tested.

Maryland and Johns Hopkins University calculate their positivity rates slightly differently. Here's a look at some sample equations.
Maryland and Johns Hopkins University calculate their positivity rates slightly differently. Here's a look at some sample equations.

While there is some disagreement about which method wins out, Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the state’s method is acceptable, as long as it remains consistent and transparent.

“To answer the question of if the state is hiding things or cooking the books, I mean, they’re using a method that many other states do,” she said. “It’s a completely valid approach.”

There is no federal standard for how states should calculate positivity rates, and thus there is variation across the board.

“We are very much encouraging of national leadership to standardize both the calculations and the data that go into them,” Nuzzo said. “We have to recognize that no metric is perfect. There’s not going to be one single number that tells us how we are. Unfortunately, public health surveillance requires looking at multiple data inputs and kind of triangulating our way to the truth.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Nathan Ruiz, Emily Opilo, Meredith Cohn, Pamela Wood, Wilborn P. Nobles III and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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