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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

Maryland malls, school buildings and casinos are set to reopen this week as key metrics guiding officials’ response to the coronavirus pandemic continue to trend downward.

With hospitalizations at their lowest point since April and consistently on the decline for weeks, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has given retailers, salons, eateries and places of worship the green light to open their doors to smaller, masked crowds.

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Yet some other states that have eased their coronavirus restrictions find themselves with spiking caseloads and urgent care needs.

In tweet threads, op-ed articles and television appearances, medical professionals have cautioned Marylanders against accepting the turnaround as evidence of an abating pandemic. Still, no vaccine exists and much remains unknown about the contagious upper respiratory disease that swiftly kills some while minimally affecting others.

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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.

Experts say the first wave isn’t over

Even as more people return to work and social routines, medical and public health experts offered a sobering outlook on Maryland’s recovery: That despite some states’ decreased numbers of new, daily cases and occupied hospital beds, the U.S. remains in its “first wave” of transmission.

“There has been much discussion of a second surge, and usually by this we mean something that comes in the fall when we have other respiratory diseases as well,” said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System, at a panel discussion this week. “We are really still in our first wave.”

A series of doctors, trained public health specialists and scientists agree that states attempting to reopen need more contact tracing, protective gear, lab supplies and testing. They encouraged people to continue covering their faces — especially indoors — washing their hands, maintaining good hygiene and keeping social distance from others.

Even if Maryland seems to have a solid grip on the virus, experts said reopening more widely will likely minimize the progress made. The ongoing protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota may also contribute to a rise in cases, they added.

“We can’t let down our guard in our desire to get back to a more normal way of life or we will jeopardize our months-long effort to limit viral spread and flatten the curve,” wrote Dr. David Marcozzi, COVID-19 incident commander for the University of Maryland Medical System and member of Hogan’s virus task force in an op-ed published Thursday in The Baltimore Sun. “As with prior pandemics, we will likely see subsequent increasing waves of illness. Their severity will depend on our collective choices. We must be disciplined.”

Expect major changes to colleges and universities this year

In an email to campus community members late Monday night, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh shared some of the state flagship institution’s plans for reopening school grounds in August.

The university will ask students to check and report their temperatures daily, run wastewater tests, offer some online or “blended” courses and restrict the number of entrants allowed in communal gathering spaces such as its dining halls. Dorms will be limited to single and double rooms — no triples or quadruples this year — with some students to be housed in what are typically resident lounges to prevent large groups from assembling there.

The university has, for years, struggled with issues pertaining to cleanliness and overcrowding in its housing accommodations. Some of the dormitories still lack air conditioning systems, according to The Diamondback, and a student died in 2018 of adenovirus after living in a room with persistent mold problems, with dozens of others infected from the sickness that often plagues those who live in military barracks.

Now, the university, like all others, will have to combat all these prior concerns while also ensuring safety during a pandemic.

Meanwhile, other universities in the state have begun drafting similar plans, with others sending students and staff members home for the semester after Thanksgiving and others requiring face masks indoors.

Nursing home data still lacking

After a Sun analysis revealed the state’s reported nursing home data did not list cumulative totals of infections and deaths — as many lawmakers, advocates and residents assumed — Maryland officials rectified the situation by re-adding the cases that they previously expunged from the site to reflect the complete figures.

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Wednesday’s data show a drop in active COVID-19 cases associated with elder care facilities of 14% over the past week.

Nursing homes have become particularly deadly epicenters of the virus, with more than half of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities stemming from infections at such facilities. To that end, residents, families and potential newcomers to nursing homes may need clear and transparent pictures of the outbreaks within facilities so they can make choices about care during the pandemic.

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But the state’s data still differs somewhat from figures it previously reported. Frederick Health and Rehabilitation Center, for example, is reporting just nine total cases among staff and residents, and zero deaths. But in April, when the state first released its nursing home data (nearly two months after the governor declared a state of emergency), Frederick Health reported 46 cases and 13 deaths from COVID-19.

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The state has not yet given an explanation for the discrepancy.

Rehab a critical component of COVID-19 recovery

While the state’s economic recovery hinges on the safe reopening of businesses, child care facilities, schools and offices, the path to physical healing often includes a rehabilitation component for many of Maryland’s most vulnerable individuals.

Older adults and those with chronic health conditions may not have an easy time transitioning between hospitals and their homes. With a disease like COVID-19, some might require weeks or even months of rehabilitation to address issues with movement, swallowing, cognition and speaking damaged over the course of the illness and treatment period.

Few rehabilitation centers in the area exclusively treat COVID-19; most incorporate coronavirus survivors into regular patient programs. Separate facilities remove the risk of cross-contamination among older and more vulnerable patient populations.

“It’s a false narrative to assume that people can leave the hospital … and they can go back home and have a quick and successful recovery,” said Dana Bradley, dean of the Erickson School for Aging Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.

Rather, patients on ventilators or sedated for several days or weeks typically require longterm rehabilitation care, with interdisciplinary needs such as speech, physical and occupational therapy often required all at once.

Hospital systems such as the University of Maryland have opened specialized facilities for such needs. Should a spike in cases and hospitalizations occur this summer or fall, more facilities of similar nature may prove necessary.

Maryland unemployment insurance woes create undue stress

Even as Maryland makes strides toward its economic recovery, thousands of Marylanders have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and have either not received the unemployment insurance benefits or toiled away to get them.

At a Wednesday rally, a group of protestors led by progressive organization Our Revolution Maryland publicized a list of demands to the state’s labor department, including expanding access to Medicaid, hiring more staffers to accommodate the call volumes and setting up a call-back system to prevent applicants from spending hours working to get through the phone lines.

Before the pandemic, millions of Americans lived paycheck-to-paycheck, relying on weekly salaries to keep their lights on and their families fed. Without unemployment services, thousands of Marylanders lack a vital lifeline to survive on a week-to-week basis.

Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Scott Dance, Phil Davis, Kalani Gordon, Jon Meoli, Wilborn P. Nobles III and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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