Maryland added nearly as many coronavirus cases in July as it did in April, when the pandemic began to ramp up in the United States, a data analysis by The Baltimore Sun shows.
Last month, the Maryland Department of Health reported 20,428 cases of the coronavirus, a sharp rise from June’s case count of 14,591.
July’s numbers account for 23% of the coronavirus cases Maryland has reported since the beginning of the pandemic, while June’s numbers made up 17% of total cases since the outbreak began in March.
“Nationally, clearly, we’re seeing the impact of the relaxation of social distancing measures that started toward the end of April, early May,” said Dr. Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It looks like the resurgence in Maryland, at least in confirmed cases, started about that time in early July.”
Lessler said he expects to see a resurgence in coronavirus-related deaths in the coming weeks, since it typically takes a few weeks after an uptick in cases to see a similar rise in deaths.
July’s numbers aren’t as high as May’s case count, which accounts for 34% of the state’s total reported cases since the pandemic began, but local and state leaders have responded to the uptick in cases by tightening coronavirus restrictions again.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ordered restaurants and bars to suspend indoor dining for two weeks, beginning July 24 at 5 p.m. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan then issued a statewide mask mandate and advised against travel to states with a testing positivity rate higher than 10%.
Lessler said even if the masking order has a significant impact on coronavirus cases and deaths, it would take until mid-August to start seeing its effect on confirmed cases, and until September to see the impact on deaths.
“It’s important to remember that if the deaths continue to increase over the course of the next month, but cases go down, that’s just an effect of the delay between when people are infected and when they’re impacted,” he said.
Maryland has reported more than 1,000 new cases of coronavirus four times since July 25.
While the state as a whole had more reported cases in July than in June, several rural counties that avoided spikes in the early months of the pandemic are now seeing large upticks in reported cases.
Garrett County only has 45 reported cases of coronavirus, but the vast majority — 76% — of its cases were reported in July. Similarly, Talbot County reported 203 cases, or 60% of its total case count, in July.
Garrett County Health Officer Bob Stephens cautioned against calling the rise in Garrett’s numbers a spike due to the county’s low case counts in comparison to the rest of the state.
“I don’t know that you would call this a spike if it was anywhere else than Garrett County,” he said.
He attributed the 34 cases added in July to an outbreak in the neighboring West Virginia counties.
“A lot of those individuals either work here, or we have individuals that live here that work in those surrounding counties,” he said.
Stephens added that residents also were likely becoming fatigued with the coronavirus restrictions.
Kent County, on the other hand, reported 83 and 88 cases in April and July, respectively, but reported only 32 cases in July.
Lessler said it would be difficult to identify why specific counties are seeing surges in cases.
“It’s important to keep in mind that infectious diseases transmission is fundamentally a fairly random process,” he said.
Someone in a small town who gets sick and infects 20 other people “can have a huge effect on the course of the epidemic in a small town,” Lessler said.
Lessler emphasized that the “randomness” of disease transmission almost ensures that an area will have an epidemic at some point, and that it’s only a matter of when, particularly in more rural areas.
While the state has ramped up testing in recent months, delays in getting test results continue to hamper the state’s ability to control the spread of the coronavirus through contact tracing.
“It appears to be still capturing a wide swath of the population because the positivity rate has been staying pretty consistent,” Lessler said. “But I think we certainly are not to the point of anybody can have their test results instantly, as soon as they want it or need it, which is probably where we would want to be if we were really going to use testing as a critical component of disease control.”
The state hopes to address the delays in getting test results with the six-state alliance announced Tuesday to buy tests that return results in a matter of minutes rather than days.
Before July 31, only two Maryland counties — Cecil and Calvert — had yet to hit the state’s goal of testing 10% of the population. Both counties hit the goal over the weekend.