Maryland health officials added 256 cases of COVID-19 to the state’s infection tally Monday as concerns about the more contagious delta variant continue to mount across the country.
While the state’s COVID-19 case and hospitalization count are nowhere near their winter peaks, both metrics have been trending upward since the beginning of July. The statewide seven-day average testing positivity rate, which hit a low of 0.45% in June, has since climbed to 2.15%.
Certain counties are reporting positivity rates nearing or exceeding the critical 5% threshold cited by the World Health Organization as indicative of far-reaching community spread. They are: Cecil (4.27%), Garrett (5.12%), Wicomico (4.41%) and Worcester (4.40%). Several other jurisdictions reported higher positivity rates Monday than the state’s seven-day average.
Health officials, public health professionals and researchers are concerned about the delta variant driving a resurgence of sickness and death as pockets of Maryland’s population and millions elsewhere remain unvaccinated.
Adults who have not gotten inoculated against COVID-19 account for nearly all of the deaths associated with the coronavirus now, top U.S. health officials say, and they are more likely to contract severe illness than those who have been immunized, too.
“All states remain at risk of seeing surges and deaths,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, during a virtual event last week with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and others. “The harms have been far greater in places where vaccine uptake is lowest — in some places, it’s quite low in high-uptake states.”
About 58% of Maryland’s population has been fully vaccinated, and nearly 77% of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to Monday’s figures. The state has shut down its mass vaccination sites, though vaccines remain widely available at pharmacies, doctors’ offices, hospitals and via local health departments.
Health officials also said they are investing in mobile vaccination clinics and community-based initiatives, including a new partnership with Kaiser Permanente that incorporates salons and barber shops into the vaccine network.
On Monday, 168 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maryland, down from a peak of more than 1,900 patients in January but up from earlier this month. Nearly all of the patients contracting and being hospitalized for COVID-19 in June were not vaccinated, according to Maryland Department of Health officials.
Nationally, about 56% of the country has been fully immunized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and close to 70% of adults 18 years and older have gotten at least one dose.
But that’s not enough, said Christopher Thompson, associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland. He said a severe resurgence of cases, hospitalizations and fatalities still could occur, especially among unvaccinated populations.
“One key thing that I think people are forgetting is some people still can’t get the vaccine,” said Thompson, citing children, people with certain medical conditions and those who are immunocompromised as among those most vulnerable of contracting COVID-19. “The more people we have [unvaccinated], the more likely we have a variant that takes us backward.”
Thompson said new variants could become so powerful that they “break through” the available vaccines, causing a surge in cases among those already immunized.
“The more people we get vaccinated, the better,” he said.
The CDC lists the delta variant as a “variant of concern,” one with higher transmissibility and more likely to neutralize the protection offered by vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments. Delta, first discovered in India, could account for as much as 83% of all confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the latest CDC genomic surveillance data.
The coronavirus will continue to mutate until a critical mass of the U.S. population receives a vaccine. That threshold could be as high as 80% to 85%, U.S. health officials have estimated.
But that number may remain out of reach due to widespread vaccine resistance and skepticism, especially in Southern and Midwestern states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where community transmission is high.
Maryland Department of Health officials said they continue to monitor each county’s vaccination progress.
The department “strongly recommends, but does not require, that all individuals who are not fully vaccinated continue to wear face coverings in all indoor settings outside of their home and in outdoor settings when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” spokesperson Charles Gischlar said in an email.
In Baltimore, officials spoke Monday with renewed urgency about getting more people vaccinated. No new restrictions were announced, but Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said reinstating the city’s mask mandate is not off the table.
”If the time comes from a public health and public safety standpoint that we have to put things back in place, I will not hesitate to do that,” said Scott, a Democrat. “We are hopeful that we do not get to that point, but I will not blink in having to do that to save the lives of Baltimoreans.”
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the city and its health partners have been targeting areas of the city where vaccination rates remain lowest. Some ZIP codes, such as those encompassing parts of Pigtown, Leakin Park and Mondawmin, have populations that remain at least 70% unvaccinated, she said. About 47% of the city’s population is fully immunized.
“I’m worried about the disparate impacts that the delta variant could have on some parts of the city compared to others,” she said. “If you’re unvaccinated, I implore you take the steps to get your questions answered this week before it’s too late.”
Children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the vaccines, though they are expected to qualify by the end of the year. It’s also possible that at least one vaccine will be fully approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by 2022, which could entice more people to get immunized.
“I’m hopeful that will change people’s minds,”Thompson said. “But so much of the reason people don’t want it doesn’t stem from data. The data is clear that it’s pretty darn safe and effective. It’s politics or personal beliefs or health status that’s keeping people from getting it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.