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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

Cases of the coronavirus are surging in parts of the United States and in Europe, prompting new concerns about hospital bed capacity and precipitating a fresh wave of shutdowns in Germany and France.

In Maryland, health officials reported the state’s highest levels of hospital bed occupancy since August. The number of cases reported over a 14-day average has also crept back up since the end of September, though the state’s positivity rate has remained under the recommended 5% threshold by both Maryland’s and Johns Hopkins' Coronavirus Resource Center standards.

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It comes as early voting in Tuesday’s presidential election is off to a record-breaking start, driven by enthusiasm by members of both dominant political parties as well as by the availability of voting by mail.

More than a quarter of Baltimore’s active, registered voters have already cast ballots. City Council President Brandon Scott, a Democrat poised to take over as the next mayor given the party’s major registration advantage, said in a televised Tuesday night candidate forum that he would not hesitate to impose shutdowns this winter in the event of a COVID-19 surge.

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“Everything that I’ve done during COVID-19, and will continue to do, will be driven by public health advice,” Scott said. “We also have to do the tough work of making sure each and every day that we are getting the information into the hands of people, but also acting to make sure that we are doing everything that we have to do and that includes, if we have to do it again, shutting the city down.”

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

BGE reports spike in overdue bills

Maryland lawmakers are bracing for a surge in constituent requests for assistance with their Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. payments.

BGE has seen a 30% increase in customers with unpaid bills a month or more overdue during the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the company has resumed sending service turn-off notices, and customers who might be eligible for utility bill assistance funds are having trouble reaching the Department of Human Services by telephone.

It’s “nearly impossible” to navigate the system and get a customer-service representative, according to lawmakers who represent Baltimore, saying the situation is reflective of the problems with the Department of Labor’s phone system as unemployment insurance claims spiked this year.

Baltimore’s Maryland General Assembly delegation sent a letter to Lourdes R. Padilla, Maryland’s human services secretary, asking DHS to "quickly re-vamp this toll-free number to make the path clearer for applicants to access inbound agents, especially for energy assistance.”

The state’s lack of response to legislators doesn’t bode well for low-income Maryland families — many of whom could receive turn-off notices in the coming months, said Democratic state Sen. Mary Washington, one of the letter’s signees.

Maryland has $176 million set aside to assist eligible families who cannot afford their utility bills.

City recycling suspension to proceed through mid-December

When Baltimore’s Department of Public Works announced that it would suspend recycling services this summer through Nov. 1, the agency vowed to focus on trash pickup, which had been severely backlogged due to staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.

Since then, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, has announced layoffs for 60 public works employees, and the staffing shortages haven’t let up. In a statement, the department said that of 259 employees, 171 reported to work in August, 175 in September and 184 in October.

Two Baltimore councilmen called on the city Wednesday to resume recycling pickup and give raises to sanitation workers, a day after the Department of Public Works announced that the pause in services would continue through Dec. 15.

Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat who represents Northwest Baltimore and has campaigned on enhancing basic constituent services, called on the department to pay its solid waste workers at least $15 per hour. He and District 1 councilman Zeke Cohen, also a Democrat, said most would require a $4 per hour raise.

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“It’s very simple,” Schleifer said in a tweet. “Pay these workers what they deserve, and we won’t have this issue.”

In a statement, Young said he had already commissioned a study that resulted in an almost 4% wage increase for solid waste workers. He also had harsh words for Schleifer and Cohen.

“If the Councilmembers of the 1st and 5th Districts would seek out information as readily as they seek out news cameras and if they would fight to identify real solutions to the City’s ills as vigorously as they fight for photo ops, we could collaboratively work to solve many more problems for the residents of Baltimore,” Young wrote.

State pressures local jurisdictions to pick up pace of CARES spending

Local jurisdictions have until Dec. 30 to spend their remaining federal coronavirus relief funds, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has twice pressured them within the last week to pick up the pace.

This comes as county executives plead for more time to use those CARES Act funds, which they did not receive until June and have been attempting to spend judiciously.

“I’ve just been trying to pace it,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican who is considering a second round of business aid. “If it’s a bad winter, we thought it might be good to give the businesses another shot in the arm in January or February.”

At the national level, lawmakers and county-focused organizations have been lobbying Congress for an extension to use the relief aid as well as an additional stimulus package. Neither is guaranteed to come before Dec. 30, Hogan said, and counties should use their remaining dollars now to complement the state’s $250 million disbursement to small businesses.

On Wednesday, State Budget Secretary David Brinkley took it a step further, saying the state will seek to recoup any unspent funds to “repurpose” them for state matters.

“My mission, my goal is for us not to leave a dollar on the table by the deadline, which is Dec. 30," Brinkley said.

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Hopkins to explore why some get sicker from COVID-19 than others

A new department at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health will explore how people’s immune systems respond to the coronavirus, information that could explain why some become more severely sick from COVID-19 than others.

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The Johns Hopkins Excellence in Pathogenesis and Immunity Center for SARS-CoV-2, or JH-EPICS, will then use the findings to produce better treatments and vaccines, said officials from Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Hopkins School of Medicine, which will share $2 million annually for five years from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Andrea Cox, professor of medicine for Hopkins Medicine, said researchers already have been investigating the virus but without this level of dedicated resources.

“With a center grant like this, we can support multiple investigators working as a team to understand some of the outstanding mysteries of this disease,” she said.

Researchers will tap the blood samples taken from Hopkins' hospitalized patients and outpatients at all stages of infection. They also will use computer techniques to uncover patterns in the data.

The scientists say there will be a need going forward for their findings to improve the vaccines likely to be approved in coming months.

Baltimore homebuyers and sellers basking in pandemic boom

A perfect storm of conditions fueled by the coronavirus has caused a boom in Baltimore’s real estate market, leaving sellers in great position to list their homes and opening the door for more buyers to enter the fray.

Fewer houses are available to go up for sale this year, creating favorable conditions for people looking to sell given the supply shortage. Those that are listed are also selling fast — with a median of just nine days on the market, the lowest in the region’s recorded history.

But several people affiliated with the industry said that while buyers can enjoy historically low mortgage interest rates now, they fear the market does not have enough affordable housing options in the pipeline for low-income earners and people who have lost their jobs due to the public health crisis.

Given the competitive atmosphere, real estate agents are advising their clients to get financially ready to close on a house, and securing preapprovals for mortgage loans before they make offers.

“There’s no time to think about whether you’re going to put an offer in,” said Arial Pegues, an agent who works throughout the region. “You have to do it the same day you see the property.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Ben Leonard, Christine Condon, Meredith Cohn, S. Wayne Carter Jr., Pamela Wood and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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