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Coronavirus

Thousands more COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday, as positivity climbs to 12%

Maryland health officials reported 4,072 new coronavirus cases Wednesday as the seven-day average positivity rate surpassed 12%, adding to growing concern about transmission heading into the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, especially with the rise of the very contagious omicron variant of the virus.

It comes one day after Maryland set a daily cases record with more than 6,000 cases, after a two-week data outage caused by a cyberattack at the Maryland Department of Health. Health officials said some of the positive test results reported Tuesday were collected during the outage.

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But even Wednesday’s tally eclipses the previous record — 3,792 new cases reported on Dec. 4, 2020, before vaccinations were widely available in Maryland. It’s unclear whether the total still reflects any cases collected during the outage.

“All data are preliminary and subject to change based on additional reporting,” wrote Maryland Department of Health spokesman Andy Owen in an email. “Surveillance reporting may include data from both the date of report and previous data that may have required an adjustment.”

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Regardless, with Wednesday’s additions, the number of new cases adds up to one in every 158 Marylanders testing positive for COVID-19 since the cyberattack first crippled the health department’s pandemic reporting on Dec. 5.

As a result of the cyberattack, some COVID-19 data for Maryland remains unavailable, including the number of deaths tied to COVID-19 since Dec. 4. Residents also cannot view the number of cases by jurisdiction or demographic data associated with those cases. Officials have not provided a timeline for when that data will be available again.

Wednesday’s positivity rate also harkens back to a time well before vaccines were available to treat COVID-19. The last time the state’s rate was above 12% was May 30, 2020, when coronavirus tests remained scarce.

The state also reported that 38,937 coronavirus tests were administered in Maryland in the past 24 hours, far below the record set last winter, which is 66,302 tests in one day. Testing sites across the region have been inundated with long lines, and most places advertising free at-home tests quickly ran out. After taking tests at home, users are asked to report their results via an app, though not all will.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who announced that he had contracted the virus earlier this week and was experiencing “some cold-like symptoms,” said Tuesday that he has called up the Maryland National Guard to help expand testing availability.

Meanwhile, 1,465 people are hospitalized in Maryland with COVID-19, a 73-person jump from Tuesdayand the most since Feb. 2. It’s tied for the 15th largest daily increase in coronavirus hospitalizations in Maryland during the pandemic. Of the top 25 biggest day-to-day jumps in hospitalizations, five occurred this month.

State projections show COVID-19 hospitalizations could climb above 2,000 in the new year, Hogan said, which would be the largest number since the pandemic began.

Hogan has said that when hospitalizations reach 1,500 people, they will activate their pandemic plans, maximizing staffing and reducing nonemergency procedures.

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Beginning Thursday, the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will suspend in-person visitation and “nonessential institutional programming” due to the surging virus. Officials said the department will also restrict movement inside at state prisons as well as Baltimore’s jail and Central Booking and Intake Center, but did not elaborate on what that meant.

Hogan did not announce any further actions Wednesday to combat the spread of the virus.

”We will continue to monitor this surge and take additional actions as needed,” Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday that Recreation and Parks activities in the city would be halted until Jan. 31, but said he wasn’t considering adding further restrictions. The city is one of the few jurisdictions in the area that mandates mask-wearing indoors. City public schools also announced this week that athletics practices and competitions would be paused during the winter break.

Over the past four weeks, the city has seen a 185% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, but data on deaths, vaccinations and testing in the city has been absent since the cyberattack on the state health department’s systems, Scott said.

The city has doled out 11,000 at-home tests through community organizations, and city testing sites have expanded operations to Mondays.

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“We’re working to expand capacity, but we ask you be patient at our testing sites,” Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said.

The influx of patients has strained hospitals already struggling with an exodus of fatigued health care professionals, and with patients dealing with other ailments, such as the flu, experts say. And with the rise of the highly transmissible omicron variant, now about 40% of the Maryland cases tested, both the vaccinated and unvaccinated are getting sick. Experts say vaccinations, and booster shots, are powerful tools to blunt the effects of COVID-19, though they may not prevent illness altogether.

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Hogan said Tuesday that the 9% of Maryland adults who have not been vaccinated account for 75% of the state’s COVID-related hospitalizations.

U.S. health officials have said that omicron is the dominant strain of the virus circulating nationally. So far, preliminary results from studies out of the United Kingdom have shown that omicron infections tend to be milder than with previous COVID-19 variants. Those who contract the omicron variant are 15% to 20% less likely to end up in the hospital than those who contracted the delta variant, and they’re 40% to 45% less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more, according to The New York Times.

Some of that reduction may be attributed to the fact that omicron is better at infecting individuals who have previously tested positive for COVID-19, and those individuals are less likely to be hospitalized. But hospitals are expected to continue to be flooded, given that the variant spreads so quickly, experts say.

South Africa, which has been at the forefront of the omicron wave, has reported a significant drop in new cases over the past several days, which medical experts say could signal that the surge there is past its peak.

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Experts continue to urge people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as well as a booster to best prevent severe illness and death.

So far, 78.6% of all Marylanders have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 70% have received two. The state also has administered 1.4 million booster doses to its population of 6.1 million.

Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo and Pamela Wood, Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley and The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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