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Coronavirus in Maryland: 5 takeaways from the week

It’s Labor Day Weekend, the unofficial end of summer and beginning of fall. For many Marylanders, it typically means pool parties, back-to-school shopping and family cookouts. This year, of course, the coronavirus will dictate the course of the long weekend.

As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said at his Tuesday news conference in Annapolis, a plurality of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus and have spoken to contact tracers said they had participated in family gatherings before their diagnoses. While the term “family gatherings” has not yet been clearly defined by the state (despite repeated requests from The Baltimore Sun and local executives for more information), we do know that it is categorically different from “house parties and outdoor events,” the second-leading setting to have attended before testing positive for the coronavirus.

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As of Thursday, more than 110,000 Marylanders had tested positive for the coronavirus, and over 3,600 people had died as a result. Among all states, Maryland ranks 14th in the rate of death per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s online database.

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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Maryland moves into Stage Three

In July, Hogan halted the state’s recovery plan due to rising metrics in several jurisdictions. Now that all counties have reached testing positivity rates below the recommended 5% threshold, the Republican governor on Tuesday gave local leaders the green light to loosen more restrictions.

Specifically, all state businesses can now reopen with some restrictions in place, including movie theaters and live entertainment venues.

Stage Three, the state’s final recovery phase, did not have to meet any specific benchmarks or standards to begin. In fact, Hogan initially said that the last stage would not begin until Marylanders had access to a safe and effective vaccine.

“Things have changed since then,” Hogan said when asked about the inconsistency.

Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and public health professor at George Washington University, had this to say in response to the Stage Three announcement: “Just because something is open and you can go to it doesn’t mean you should.”

MTA, MARC to pare down services due to coronavirus losses

In the latest round of services to scale back due to coronavirus-related budget strains, the Maryland Transit Administration proposed plans Tuesday to cut back its bus service in the Baltimore region next year by 20% — eliminating 25 bus lines and reducing service on 12 others — due to falling fare revenue and reduced funding caused by the pandemic.

The MTA also said it would pare back its MARC train and Commuter Bus service in an effort to “optimize transit service for core bus riders, especially transit-dependent households.”

Reducing transit options for people who rely on it in Baltimore — which already has limited public transportation services compared to other cities — will make the life of essential workers that much more difficult. The move hurts low-income households without cars and also makes commuting to jobs, hospitals, doctors’ offices and grocery stores all the more problematic.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Council President Brandon Scott, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball issued a joint statement on the proposed service cuts.

“This decision will disproportionately impact our poor, Black and Brown residents, especially those living in historically-disinvested neighborhoods,” they said. “Particularly during a public health emergency that continues to have devastating impacts, we should not seek to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.”

But the state-owned MTA reported $550 million in lost revenue attributed to COVID-19 in the fiscal year that ended in June, and officials expect an equally large shortfall this year.

“The financial impact created by the COVID-19 crisis has created an unparalleled challenge for transit agencies across the U.S., and many are facing difficult decisions,” MTA chief Kevin Quinn said in a statement. “MDOT MTA will continue to strive for a safe, reliable and equitable transit system that provides opportunity to all citizens in the Baltimore region.”

Dozens of nursing homes found to be ill-equipped

After surveying all 226 of the state’s certified nursing homes, state inspectors found at least 64 of them to be ill-equipped to handle the coronavirus pandemic, according to records obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

The new documents show that at least 10 facilities have faced significant fines based on recent inspection surveys, from $70,000 to $380,000, including two previously reported by The Sun. The 54 others were ordered to develop a plan to fix the problems.

Forty-five facilities received smaller fines for not completing mandatory testing and not reporting records to the state.

According to the inspection surveys, deficiencies at the nursing homes included such things as failing to keep incoming residents who potentially carried the virus separate from other residents, or lax cleaning and hand hygiene that subjected staff and residents to potential infection.

An additional 13 homes did not complete mandatory testing and faced resulting fines ranging from $4,000 to $20,000, according to records.

Joseph DeMattos Jr., president of Health Facilities Association of Maryland, which represents skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers, said the pandemic has thrown the facilities off balance from their usual responsibilities.

“In the new normal of COVID, the surveys and inspections focus on protocols related to a virus that potentially impacts all of the workers, residents and patients in the nursing home. That has been a challenge for the nursing homes,” he said.

New cellphone feature could aid contract tracing

New cellphone software designed jointly by Apple and Google could soon roll out to Marylanders to help with the state’s contact tracing operation.

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The mobile feature, which would be available to iPhone users in a voluntary software system and to Google phone users via app download, assigns those who opt in a series of barcodes every hour. If a person in the system reports a positive test result, the system sends notifications to all users whose barcodes have been tracked near that person’s barcodes in the last 14 days, alerting them that they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

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The product relies heavily on individual action and does not track names, locations or other cellphone data, according to Apple and Google. The companies have pledged not to sell users’ data to commercial vendors.

Experts familiar with the technology said the product’s reliance on Bluetooth signal rather than location data should help curb people’s fears about third-party surveillance and privacy. Other countries have had success with similar products, said Dobin Yim, an associate professor of information systems at Loyola University Maryland.

“As long as there’s enough people who sign up, or a critical mass, the benefits do outweigh privacy concerns under limited cases,” he said. But he added it would be helpful for Google and Apple to more explicitly detail how they plan on keeping users’ information safe rather than offering a blanket statement assuring that they will.

Mandatory school schedule changes upend first week back

After Hogan criticized some school systems last week for not putting in the “hard work” of figuring out how to get students back to school buildings, Maryland’s state school board adopted a requirement this week that will push districts to offer more synchronous learning.

The requirement mandates schools to provide a minimum of 3.5 hours a day of live instruction by a teacher, and gives school systems until the end of 2020 to put the standard in place. State schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon initially proposed that schools offer more than 3.5 hours a day and wanted to condense the timeline, but educators and administrators found middle ground.

Still, some expressed frustration that Salmon’s guidance came on Sept. 1, a week before Baltimore-area schools are set to kick off their year using months’ worth of planning.

“We appreciate that the state board of education rejected Superintendent Salmon’s last-minute proposal to rip up local school schedules in a matter of weeks without thought for the confusion, stress, and chaos that would ensue,” Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said in a statement after the vote. But she said that “the poor communication and sudden changes ... from state leadership are deeply concerning and in dire need of improvement.”

All 24 Maryland school systems are beginning the year online in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Sixteen districts have indicated that they will attempt to bring some groups of students back to classrooms beginning as early as mid-September.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Emily Opilo, Colin Campbell, Meredith Cohn and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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