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Maryland’s COVID testing positivity rate soars to pandemic high as Hogan says omicron driving hospitalizations

Maryland experienced record COVID-19 hospitalizations and testing positivity rates Wednesday as Gov. Larry Hogan confirmed locally what was already known on the national level: The highly contagious omicron variant has become by far the dominant strain in the state.

The Republican governor said 88.5% of recent coronavirus samples sent for further lab analysis were found to be the omicron variant. Moreover, the labs confirmed that 91% of the samples from patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were omicron, Hogan said.

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“Omicron is now clearly the dominant variant among our states,” Hogan said at the start of the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday morning.

Despite an overwhelming demand for COVID-19 rapid tests in Maryland and beyond, Hogan said he learned during a White House briefing that relief in the way of more such tests from the federal government remained several weeks away. The development followed his declaration Tuesday of a 30-day state of emergency designed to mitigate the coronavirus crisis, in part, by expanding Maryland’s testing infrastructure.

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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., both Democrats, followed suit Wednesday with plans to test more people in their jurisdictions to deal with the unprecedented surge of infections and hospitalizations statewide and in their particularly hard-hit localities.

People are tested at the drive-up or walk-up COVID-19 testing site at 3500 W. Northern Parkway as Mayor Brandon M. Scott holds a news conference with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.
People are tested at the drive-up or walk-up COVID-19 testing site at 3500 W. Northern Parkway as Mayor Brandon M. Scott holds a news conference with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Along with 43,000 new test results Wednesday, the state reported a record seven-day average testing positivity rate for the second day in a row. The average proportion of COVID-19 tests in Maryland that are coming back positive, 28.56%, is higher than at any point during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the health department.

Both Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s rates topped previous pandemic peaks established in April 2020, just weeks after the first coronavirus cases were detected in Maryland and when tests were exceptionally scarce, the data shows.

Health officials also reported almost 100 new COVID-19 fatalities Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing the state’s death toll from the virus to 11,755, according to the health department.

The state confirmed 10,286 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, pushing the pandemic case count to more than 776,000 as of Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s hospitals continued to struggle to care for the record-setting influx of patients, which has pushed many past capacity and forced some to adopt crisis standards of care.

The health department reported Wednesday that 61 more hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients statewide. Hospitals are caring for some 3,118 coronavirus patients, after eclipsing 3,000 for the first time Tuesday during the pandemic.

Of those reported hospitalized Wednesday in Maryland, 41 were pediatric patients, including 10 children who required intensive care.

“If there’s any good news from the data, it’s that we’re seeing more hospitalizations for those needing acute care compared to earlier in the pandemic when ICU cases were overwhelming area hospitals,” Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said at a news conference Wednesday with Scott. “But on the downside, with the spread of the omicron variant, as reported nationwide, Baltimore City is also experiencing increases in pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID-19.”

Data from the University of Maryland Medical System found that 74% of its COVID-19 patients over the past 30 days were not vaccinated, while 24% had completed a two-dose course or gotten the single-shot inoculation, Hogan said. About 2% of the patients hospitalized over that time had received their booster shot, he added.

Hogan, Scott and Olszewski echoed various public health experts in continuing to promote the urgency of getting a booster shot, which provides the best protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death.

The state reported roughly 13,100 booster shots administered over the past 24 hours, bringing the proportion of Maryland’s total population that has gotten one to about 27%, the data shows.

Hogan’s emergency initiatives Tuesday included mobilizing 1,000 members of the Maryland National Guard to assist with testing and ordering that 20 new coronavirus testing sites be opened adjacent to hospitals, where emergency departments are overflowing with people seeking care and walk-in testing.

Scott and Olszewski saw the need to expand testing in the city and county. Baltimore has the fourth-highest average case rate per 100,000 residents and the fifth-highest daily testing positivity rate; Baltimore County has the eighth-highest case rate and sixth-highest positivity, according to state health department data.

Olszewski unveiled plans Wednesday to open a “large scale” testing site in White Marsh on Monday and said the county would begin to distribute 100,000 rapid tests among residents the same day.

“Across our state we continue to see long lines of those who want to get tested,” Olszewski said. “We even saw people standing out in the middle of the snowstorm earlier this week to get tested.”

Scott called a news conference at Baltimore’s new drive-thru COVID testing site near Pimlico Race Course, where a line of cars stretched beyond a city block. He announced the city’s purchase of 200,000 rapid tests to distribute to neighborhoods with high rates of infection and low vaccine coverage.

An additional 100,000 tests would go to city schools along with 80,000 N95 masks to ensure students continue to learn in their classrooms safely, Scott said. Dzirasa and Scott asked residents to heed public health precautions in light of the threat of omicron’s contagiousness. They urged residents to get vaccinated and boosted, avoid large crowds and mask in indoor public settings.

“Do not put others at risk for your small, simple convenience,” Scott said.

Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

Mayor Brandon M. Scott holds a news conference with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa on COVID-19 numbers. The mayor announced the purchase of rapid COVID-19 tests kits for schools and city residents.
Mayor Brandon M. Scott holds a news conference with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa on COVID-19 numbers. The mayor announced the purchase of rapid COVID-19 tests kits for schools and city residents. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)
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