While Maryland health officials weren’t reporting COVID-19 data on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the state’s metrics were soaring to nearly unprecedented heights, according to the state’s online data.
By Sunday, the seven-day average positivity rate had reached 26.09%, nearly equaling levels from the beginning of the pandemic, when tests were very scarce. The rate could be an indication of the rapid transmission of the virus’s omicron variant in Maryland — and that more testing is needed.
The World Health Organization and others use 5% as the benchmark for when community transmission becomes widespread. Maryland’s positivity rate hovered just above 5% at the start of December.
During the holiday weekend, an additional 400 people were reported hospitalized with COVID-19 and an additional 110 people were reported dead.
By Sunday, a record of 2,550 people, 38 of them children, were hospitalized with COVID-19. Some 2,111 people needed acute care, and 439 were in intensive care units, including nine children. The numbers have crippled hospitals and their emergency departments.
In an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan cited staffing issues and fatigue plaguing hospitals in the state.
“We believe that the next four to six weeks are really going to be a terrible point in this crisis, and it’s potentially going to be the worst part of the whole two-year fight,” he said.
Nationally, cases have surged, with an average of 300,000 reported each day — more than ever before. Maryland has the eighth-worst transmission rate among all 50 states, and it has increased 563% over the past two weeks, according to The New York Times coronavirus tracker.
That means the public is failing to mitigate the virus effectively, said Christopher Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor in the department of biology at Loyola University Maryland.
“It boils down to our own behaviors,” Thompson said. “It’s hard around the holidays, and I think people are sick of this. But it’s our decisions that keep us in this situation.”
Thompson said wearing well-fitted masks at the right times, washing hands, staying socially distant and getting tested at the onset of symptoms or after a possible exposure all can help counteract this latest surge and ease the strain on hospitals. It can also help keep children in school without disruptions, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, you need to be following the rules. It’s about the community; it’s not just about us,” Thompson said.
“I’ve been vaccinated, I have my booster, I’m relatively healthy and I think I have decent immunity. But I could get omicron, and I could be standing in line at the grocery store next to someone who is undergoing chemo, or someone whose family member is. So I’m going to wear a mask to protect me and my community.”
Between Friday and Sunday, more than 36,000 new cases were reported in Maryland — about 10,000 a day. Sunday, the state’s seven-day average case rate was 174 per 100,000 people, far beyond the virus’s previous peak at this time last year, during which the case rate topped out at 53 per 100,000 people.
The worst rates — over 200 cases per 100,000 people — were in Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Charles County.
On Thursday, nearly 52,000 tests were administered statewide, and 34.7% of them came back positive. On New Year’s Eve, about 70,000 tests were taken, and 23.58% of them were positive. And on New Year’s Day it was 41,000 tests, 34.62% of them positive.
In recent weeks, state and local officials have scrambled to stand up new coronavirus testing sites amid the overwhelming wave of infections. Sunday afternoon, for instance, a line of cars almost 1 1/2 miles long idled outside the Baltimore City Health Department’s newest coronavirus testing site near Pimlico Race Course — the only one operating for the day. Hospitals across the state have shifted to crisis mode, canceling non-urgent surgeries and adjusting staffing to make room for the influx of patients.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Education has insisted schools should resume in-person instruction Monday at the conclusion of winter breaks, although a snowy forecast threatened to delay their return. The state has yet to institute any sweeping new restrictions, though many counties have reinstated face mask mandates for indoor public locations.
In an email, Maryland Department of Health spokesman Andy Owen highlighted funding allocations made by the state to combat the surge.
“As Governor Hogan announced on Dec. 21, the state has committed $100M in additional funding to support hospitals and nursing homes as they deal with the current surge, and we are taking a series of actions to support additional demand for testing. Just this past Friday, the state opened two new major testing sites in Anne Arundel and Harford counties,” Owen wrote.
In sum, 11,632 Marylanders have died from COVID-19, and the state has reported more than 730,000 cases, many of them in the past few weeks.
This winter’s wave has infected large numbers of vaccinated people, but officials have said it is largely the unvaccinated who are suffering severe symptoms and heading for hospitals. Experts say getting vaccinated, and receiving an additional booster dose as soon as permitted, is the best way to stave off infection, or at least blunt its effects.
As of Sunday, 70.5% of all Marylanders were considered fully vaccinated, with two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson variety. About 38.11% of those individuals had gotten an additional booster dose.
Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller and photographer Amy Davis contributed to this article.