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COVID-19 in 2020: What the numbers tell us about the pandemic’s toll in Maryland

It’s easy to look back on 2020 as two distinct periods: before the pandemic, and the pandemic. A lot changed between the first and second waves, though. And, throughout the year, it was evident the burden wasn’t felt equally. Before 2020 gets too far in the rear view, here are five things numbers reveal about the first calendar year of the pandemic in Maryland.

1. Deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 are only part of the story.

During the first calendar year of the pandemic, COVID-19 was officially blamed for the deaths of 5,727 Marylanders, likely making it the state’s third leading cause of death. But the pandemic may have contributed to thousands of additional fatalities, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

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The CDC estimates that Maryland could have had up to 8,241 “excess deaths” related to COVID-19 in 2020. Excess deaths refer to the difference between the number of deaths expected based on historical trends and the number of deaths that were observed during a specific time period. These are not only deaths caused directly by COVID-19, but those caused indirectly as well, such as people who were unable to receive proper medical care due to overexerted medical systems.

It’s highly probable, though, that some COVID-19 victims would have died last year of other causes had they not gotten the disease. It’s also possible that changes in behavior because of the pandemic contributed to decreases in deaths in certain other areas. These possibilities are reflected in the low end of CDC’s excess deaths estimate, which says that as few as 5,117 more Marylanders than expected could have died during 2020, more than 600 fewer than the official COVID-19 death toll.

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2. More cases, but fewer deaths: Between 2020′s two waves, access to testing, understanding of virus greatly improved.

Maryland reported much higher case numbers during the fall surge than in the spring, which can be attributed at least in part to increased testing availability. In May, the state averaged around 7,365 tests a day, while in December, it averaged about 41,993 tests per day.

As health care workers learned more about coronavirus and the best way to treat it, many said they felt better prepared for the second wave, likely saving lives despite higher hospitalization numbers. The daily average of COVID-19 patients in the care of Maryland hospitals was 1,481 in May compared to 1,687 in December.

Hospitalizations dropped dramatically during the summer and early fall months, hitting a low of 281 hospitalizations in late September before starting to pick up again in late October.

May was the deadliest month of the pandemic in 2020, with the state recording 1,364 deaths, but the number of Marylanders who died from coronavirus more than doubled from November to December, an indication of how quickly the fall wave hit Maryland.

3. Maryland’s hot spots shifted from population centers to less dense areas.

Over the course of 2020, hot spots in Maryland shifted from more populated jurisdictions to rural counties, such as Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland.

4. Cases among Hispanic and Black residents were disproportionately high all year, but especially so early in the pandemic.

As those hot spots shifted, so did the demographics of those testing positive for COVID-19. For most of the year, Hispanic and Black residents made up the majority of the state’s cases, despite representing 10.6% and 31.1% of Marylanders respectively, according to 2019 Census estimates.

After cases and deaths in areas in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore spiked in the fall, white Marylanders represented 32% of cumulative cases by the end of the year. This number is still disproportionately low, as white people represent 58.5% of Marylanders.

5. After record-setting spring, unemployment claims remain elevated.

The economic impact of the pandemic will last years, perhaps even decades. Closing the book on one of the most immediate indicators for 2020 shows unemployment claims, which set records last spring and have been partially boosted by expanded eligibility, still in territory that until the pandemic was last visited early last decade, during the recovery from the Great Recession. Many observers expect this recovery to be fundamentally different, with many lost jobs not expected to come back quickly, if ever.

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