Maryland’s December COVID-19 surge: Here’s what you missed over the holiday weekend

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While many Marylanders spent the weekend celebrating Christmas, the state’s coronavirus metrics continued to surge — breaking pandemic records — according to data posted Sunday evening.

The state did not post new COVID data on Friday and Saturday due to the holiday, but by Sunday, some 25,000 new COVID-19 cases were added to Maryland’s tallies and the state’s seven-day average positivity rate bounded past 15%.


It was the second time in as many weeks that the state’s data saw a huge jump after a period offline. Much of Maryland’s COVID-19 reporting ground to a halt after a cyberattack on the state Department of Health earlier this month. Once it was restored last week, it came roaring back with tens of thousands of new cases.

Experts say it could be a testament to just how quickly the omicron variant of the virus is spreading. Hospitals around the region have activated emergency plans to maximize staffing and bed space for coronavirus patients.


Here’s what you need to know:

A Christmas Eve case record

On Friday, Christmas Eve, Maryland set a record for coronavirus cases reported in a day, with 9,859 positives recorded from a record number of tests conducted Dec. 23. It shattered the previous record — 6,869 cases — set just a day earlier.

On Christmas, even with 30,000 fewer test-takers the day before, state health officials reported another 9,350 new cases.

By Sunday, when about 5,000 new cases were reported, the state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate had reached 15.85%, a level not seen since the early days of the pandemic, when tests were scarce, and the sick were more likely to receive them.

Experts have said the figure, meant to capture an area’s transmission rate and to show whether sufficient testing is available, should be below 5%, and it should stay there for two weeks before restrictions are eased.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has said state officials are not considering additional regulations for businesses or mandates for mask-wearing, although some counties have instituted mandates themselves.

Baltimore City, for instance, has required face masks indoors in public places since August. Howard County restarted its mask mandate effective Sunday at 5 p.m., and Baltimore County will do so Dec. 29.

Some Baltimore-area school systems did, however, temporarily nix extracurricular activities and athletic contests before students began their winter breaks. State officials urged schools to remain open for instruction, but Prince George’s County opted to send students home for online courses days before the end of the term. They’re to continue learning remotely upon their return in the new year, through at least Jan. 18.


COVID-19 testing volume sets a record, but challenges remain

The state this week set a record for COVID-19 tests administered in 24 hours, with more than 96,000.

The previous record, set Dec. 11, 2020, was 66,302.

But the demand surely put a strain on the state’s testing system. Last week, long lines formed outside testing centers, in addition to local libraries handing out free at-home test kits, as residents scrambled to test themselves before the holidays and after exposures to sick co-workers, family members and friends.

The state has pledged half a million rapid tests to local health departments and the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, plus $30 million to schools for more testing and coronavirus prevention supplies.

Hospitals in trouble

State health officials announced Thursday that more than 1,500 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 at once, activating Gov. Larry Hogan’s pandemic hospital plan.

Under his directive, hospitals were to increase bed capacity — including by making spaces used for administrative work available for clinical care — increase staffing levels and cut down on non-urgent and elective surgical procedures.


So far, at least one hospital system in the state is going beyond the governor’s orders.

Friday, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health system declared a hospital disaster at its facilities in Harford County, as their numbers of COVID-19 patients hit levels not seen during the pandemic thus far.

System officials said COVID-19 positive patients at their hospital in Bel Air had jumped more than 700% over the past month. It was a 400% jump at the system’s hospital in Havre de Grace.

The system’s crisis protocols include reducing surgical procedures by 20%, mostly impacting elective procedures, officials said Friday.

Monoclonal antibodies

Hogan and Maryland’s health department have made monoclonal antibodies a cornerstone of the state’s COVID response. But the federal government has found much of the current supply to be ineffective against COVID-19′s fast-moving omicron variant.

So, the state has advised health care providers to conserve the treatment for those most in need.


“It is possible that some monoclonal sites will run out of [them] prior to the next shipment expected in early January 2022,” wrote Dr. Howard Haft, the health department’s senior medical adviser, and Dr. Jinlene Chan, deputy secretary for public health, in their letter to providers. “The state is making every effort to ensure that our supply of [monoclonal antibody] therapies are available to patients who need them most.”

Omicron taking over

Nationally, omicron is now the dominant COVID-19 strain, making up some 73% of coronavirus cases, the Centers for Disease Control said last week. The latest data from Maryland health officials, also announced last week, showed omicron making up at least 40% of cases in the state, but experts say its footprint is likely growing.

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That’s because it is highly transmissible, although early studies from other nations have shown that it is less likely to result in hospitalization.

State officials have said that about three-quarters of Maryland’s coronavirus patients are unvaccinated, and are urging Marylanders to be vaccinated and to receive booster shots where applicable. So-called “breakthrough infections” impacting the vaccinated have become more common. Hogan himself tested positive for the virus last week despite having received a booster dose of a vaccine. But experts say those infections are usually less severe, and omicron only reinforces the need for all those eligible to be vaccinated.

Missing COVID-19 data vexes

After a cyberattack struck the Maryland Department of Health Dec. 5, some coronavirus data remains unavailable to the public, including the number of COVID-19 deaths recorded since then and the geographic and demographic data associated with each case.

Officials have said they’re bringing the data back online cautiously, out of a fear that data could be lost. So far, there’s no evidence any data was breached. But the security incident caused case counts and other critical data points to go offline for two weeks.


Local officials say the imprecise data may make it more difficult to inform the public about outbreaks.

“We are hopeful that the state can update the jurisdictional data soon so that we can return to providing up-to-date information to our residents on our website,” said Ronya Nassar, spokeswoman for the Harford County health department, in a statement Sunday evening.

Baltimore Sun reporters Alex Mann, Hallie Miller, Lorraine Mirabella and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.