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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

Revelations that top White House officials knew of the deadly, virulent nature of the coronavirus — and its ability to infect people via aerosolized particles — as early as February made headlines this week, with some arguing that President Donald Trump acted negligently in his handling of the public health crisis and others countering that he smartly downplayed the threat to minimize mass panic.

The pandemic reached Maryland in early March, and since then, over 114,000 people have contracted COVID-19, and more than 3,600 people have died as a result. Countless others have survived only to face long and taxing recovery periods.

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Maryland’s Black, Latino and Hispanic communities have suffered disproportionately, a national trend that has played out in communities across the state. Young adults in their 20s and 30s account for a plurality of cases, while older adults, particularly those 80 and over, make up the vast majority of deaths. Nursing homes have posed a major problem for the state, with many of them currently facing fines for deficient infection control.

Since March, there have been hundreds of new cases announced every day.

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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.

Maryland to invest in rapid test technology

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday that the state will spend $7.5 million on rapid testing technology to use in places prone to large outbreaks such as nursing homes, prisons, poultry plants and possibly college campuses.

The rapid tests, which can deliver results in about 15 minutes, work by detecting a protein associated with the coronavirus, whereas the more conventional molecular tests look for genetic material and thus take longer to analyze. The molecular tests tend to be more accurate.

But rapid tests could add to Maryland’s testing capacity by quickly alerting officials of outbreaks at vulnerable sites. They won’t replace the molecular tests, but could be used for people already showing symptoms, as there’s some evidence that the protein detection technology doesn’t capture infections right away.

Hogan touted the development as a first-of-its-kind cooperative purchasing agreement, which will be headed by Maryland. The other compact members are Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Utah and Virginia.

This isn’t the Republican governor’s first foray into test purchasing agreements; in April, Hogan brokered a deal with his contacts in South Korea for 500,000 tests worth about $9.5 million, though it’s still unclear how many of them have been used and where they have been deployed. It was later discovered that the state traded in those tests for “better, faster” ones and did not move forward on a cheaper offer of test kits from a domestic supplier.

Hogan has previously said that the South Korean kits would add to the state’s fall supply, which has been expected to meet high demand with the arrival of the seasonal flu.

Gap widens between state’s reported positivity rate and Hopkins'

Maryland health officials have reported the state’s testing positivity rate at under 5% for the last several weeks, which the World Health Organization considers the ideal threshold for officials to judge testing capacity and transmission. On Thursday, they measured it at 3.71%.

But Johns Hopkins, which also calculates positivity rates for states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., listed Maryland at 6.09%, one of 32 places where the positivity rate exceeds that 5% recommended goal.

The two entities calculate testing positivity rates using different data sets. The state uses the total number of tests administered, which includes repeats, while Hopkins looks at the absolute 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.

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, lead epidemiologist for Hopkins' coronavirus resource center’s Testing Insights Initiative, said Thursday that the growing difference between Hopkins' figure and the state’s directly relates to the inclusion, or lack thereof, of those repeat tests.

“If our number is going up versus theirs, what’s probably happening is that the number of people that are newly being tested that are testing positive is increasing,” Nuzzo said. “These are people who are possibly being tested for the first time, or they’ve had some kind of status change, meaning they tested negative before but now are testing positive.”

Even as the figures remain more than 2 percentage points apart, Nuzzo said, the difference is relatively small when placed into the scope of the large rates some states saw earlier in the pandemic and are still seeing now. Through Wednesday Sept. 9 data, Hopkins had 12 states with seven-day rates in double-digits.

Still, the gap between the state’s and Hopkins' figures has not been wider since late May, when both rates exceeded 13%.

Student connectivity problems a ‘failure’

Many students in the Baltimore area logged on for the first official day of school this week, kicking off virtual learning for an unconventional fall. But an unknown number of students had no way to participate.

Maryland lacks data on the number of the state’s 900,000 public school students who lack access to a reliable internet connection or computers. Some districts, like Baltimore, have handed out thousands of laptops, purchased hot spots and paid the bills for internet for scores of students. Still, Baltimore Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she did not know how many kids were left behind.

Baltimore’s problems with connectivity are not unique. In Harford County, laptops are on back-order, and students in kindergarten through grade 3 won’t have devices to access classes unless their family provides them, administrators said. Portions of Baltimore County remain unserved by internet service providers.

“The fact that schools will start on Tuesday without a clear understanding statewide of who can and who cannot access their classroom is a failure beyond epic proportions,” said state Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “Nothing should have been prioritized over this basic infrastructure question over the last 90 days. If kids aren’t in class, nothing else about the education system matters.”

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School system officials said they’ve spent the summer attempting to reach disconnected households.

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Colleges begin doling out suspensions for coronavirus-related violations

Dozens of students have already been placed on interim suspensions from at least two Maryland universities for violating COVID-19 protocol such as social distancing, mask wearing, and failing to quarantine, officials at University of Maryland, College Park and Salisbury University said on Sunday.

The two schools, which both opted to welcome students back to campus and offer some classes in person, have suspended a combined 40 students for interim periods as of Sunday, meaning that they are barred from campus until and unless they can make a case for their reinstatement.

Neither spokesperson gave a specific reason for these disciplinary actions, though Andrea Goodwin, University of Maryland’s director of the Office of Student Conduct, attributed the suspensions in a campus-wide email “to a failure by some to comply with ... expectations, in particular gathering in large groups, failing to wear masks and failing to maintain 6 feet of physical distance from others and, at times, to the reckless disregard for the directives of the medical professionals at the University Health Center that those infected with the virus isolate themselves so they do not infect others.”

It comes as college campuses evolve into hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks, as some 51,000 students have already been infected at more than 1,000 different institutions, according to data maintained by The New York Times.

Suspensions, expulsions and closures ultimately force students back to their communities where they can potentially spread the disease farther. It also relieves universities of accepting full responsibility for outbreaks as students become culprits.

State ends fiscal year with some good news

A record number of Marylanders filed for unemployment insurance this year as the coronavirus ravaged the economy as normal. But despite the job losses, pay cuts, furloughs and business restrictions, Maryland’s state government finished its most recent budget year with a balance of $585.8 million in its general fund, only about half a percent less than pre-pandemic estimates.

Back in May, state officials predicted a dire scenario due to the pandemic, with the state potentially losing about $1 billion in revenue in fiscal 2020 alone, as people lost work and cut their spending.

Yet, the state’s general fund took in $18.6 billion total, primarily from personal income taxes, corporate taxes and sales taxes — 2.4% more than the year before.

Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, said the report reflects the state’s “early and aggressive fiscal actions,” as well as an early influx of federal aid.

“However, Maryland still faces a massive budget hole for fiscal year 2021, and well into the future,” Ricci said. “With all the uncertainty surrounding the economy and Congress, this is no time to take any actions off the table or rush to empty our Rainy Day Fund.”

The state’s financial situation was likely helped by expanded unemployment benefits, stimulus checks the federal government sent to residents, and loans and grants awarded to businesses, according to David Farkas, acting director of the state’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates, which tracks the money coming into the state’s coffers. Also, most of the state’s fiscal year happened before the pandemic arrived in Maryland in March.

A more accurate reflection of the state’s current fiscal health should emerge when the Board of Revenue Estimates meets on Sept. 29.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Meredith Cohn, Wilborn P. Nobles III, Liz Bowie, Lillian Reed and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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