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Maryland reports continued decline in new coronavirus cases; winter storm likely to lower numbers in the days ahead

Maryland health officials reported 986 new cases of the coronavirus Thursday, and 30 more deaths caused by the virus.

The number of new daily cases has declined significantly since mid-January, when the state was averaging more than 3,000 new cases each day after the holidays. The daily total has been below 1,000 since Sunday.

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The state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate declined for the ninth straight day to 4.13% Thursday, down from 4.17% Wednesday. It’s now below the World Health Organization-recommended standard for reopening of 5%. It was over 9% at the beginning of the year.

Hospitalizations, which peaked close to 2,000 last month, dropped to 1,048 Thursday, 48 fewer patients than Wednesday.

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The state’s seven-day average of new cases reported daily per 100,000 people also has declined fairly steadily, to 14.42, from a peak over 50. The Western Maryland jurisdiction of Washington County currently has the state’s worst rate, at 28.85 cases per 100,000 people.

But local and federal health officials are growing increasingly concerned about the rise of new coronavirus variants. Maryland reported its first case of the Brazil variant, P.1, Wednesday night. The variant, which is more transmissible, first appeared in the United States in January.

A winter storm blanketing the region Thursday, which shuttered testing and vaccination sites across the state, is likely to cause lower than normal case counts and vaccine totals in the days ahead.

It comes as the state struggles to scale up its inoculation effort, hindered by a strained supply. So far, 11.3% of Marylanders have received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccine. About 4.7% of the state population has been fully vaccinated.

Thursday, the state reported 13,625 new first doses administered, and 20,275 second doses.

Disparities in vaccinations across different counties, and different demographic groups, are sometimes stark. In the state’s second largest jurisdiction, Prince George’s County, a majority Black suburb of Washington, just 5.6% of the population has received their first dose. In neighboring Montgomery County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, 11% of the population has one dose on board. In small, rural Eastern Shore counties like Kent, the rate is closer to 20%.

Black Marylanders have been vaccinated at a disproportionately slow rate. About 15% of first doses administered in Maryland have gone to Black residents, who make up 31% of the state population. The same goes for Latino people, who have gotten about 4% of first shots but make up 11% of the state population.

Experts say hesitancy among people of color to get the vaccine, based on a history of mistreatment in medicine, could be playing a role, as could myths about the vaccine or its development.

But officials also have raised alarms over the way the vaccines are being distributed. For instance, hundreds more people are being vaccinated each day at the Six Flags America site in Prince George’s County, compared to the Baltimore Convention Center. Six Flags, meanwhile, has drawn Marylanders from 22 of the 24 counties, even though the site was meant to be an advantage for the area’s mostly Black residents.

Marylanders also have complained that searching for a vaccine appointment is complicated by the variety of sites offering inoculations. Eligible residents are searching the websites of state and local governments, hospitals, pharmacies and mass vaccination sites, eager for a lucky break. State officials say they’re trying to distribute the vaccine as widely as possible, and a central sign-up portal isn’t planned.

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