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Coronavirus in Maryland: Five takeaways from the week

In the first full week after the expiration of Maryland’s stay-at-home order, parts of the state reopened to a new normal while others clamped down on their restrictions in an attempt to stave off further spread of the coronavirus in their jurisdictions.

But the differences in approach in neighboring counties has highlighted challenges in the state’s path to reopening. Though Baltimore and several other counties remain under a stay-at-home order, residents from all over the state flocked to Ocean City last weekend, where the beach and boardwalk saw thousands of visitors return after a slow start to the season.

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In Baltimore County, county Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said at a Thursday news conference that retailers, salons and barber shops will soon reopen to 10 people or fewer at a time. But, meanwhile, city residents learned this week they won’t have summer events to attend, as all major gatherings with the potential to draw 250 people or more have been canceled through Aug. 31.

To keep Marylanders up to date with the week’s most pressing takeaways, here are five key points from The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus coverage.

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Testing to expand throughout Maryland

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has said, repeatedly, that the state must expand its testing capacity in order to reopen. Now, more than two months since the Republican governor declared a state of emergency, his administration has pledged to ramp up testing to include people who do not have symptoms of COVID-19, as well as all detainees and correction officers inside juvenile detention centers.

If successful, this expansion would clear some of the major hurdles in the way of a safe reopening. Since Maryland began testing and tracking those with the coronavirus, only those with symptoms — or who could prove they had come into direct contact with the virus — had a chance of getting swabbed, and even then, many were turned away.

National testing shortages have contributed to the state’s evolving policy. It has left many potential carriers of the virus able to spread it without knowing, especially those in essential workplaces and in confined spaces such as correction centers and nursing homes — where many prove especially vulnerable to developing serious illness.

As testing expands, the number of positive cases the state reports each day will likely spike, too. But Hogan’s administration considers the number of people hospitalized the most important metric to track. For now, that number continues to curve downward.

However, there is still an outsized demand for tests. On the first day of appointment-free testing, the Maryland State Fairgrounds testing site in Timonium reached capacity in less than an hour.

Hogan faces first round of serious criticism

For weeks, Hogan and his team operated with bipartisan praise of his response to the pandemic. He appeared on a number of national media networks and as a guest on outlets such as Barstool Sports and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

The smooth sailing has ended somewhat, though, as criticisms of the governor began to mount last week — particularly after the governor kicked off the first phase of the state’s reopening plan without consulting other county executives or local leaders. Many have diverged from Hogan, with some jurisdictions maintaining their district’s restrictions or moving at a slower pace than what the governor outlined in his amendment to the stay-at-home order. (The governor’s office noted that the recovery plan allows for local jurisdictions to make their own reopening decisions.)

Democratic legislators have since challenged the administration over its response to various aspects of the mitigation strategy, saying Hogan and his team have not provided enough transparency about some decisions. And public health experts such as Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein a former Baltimore health commissioner and former state health secretary, voiced concerns about indoor retailers, salons and places of worship in the state reopening too soon.

Meanwhile, other groups have mobilized against the governor over complaints that Hogan has not done enough about the economy and statewide unemployment.

“Some people think we’re moving too fast and some people think we’re moving too slow, so it’s probably the right move,” Hogan said last week.

A reader asked: Can I visit my significant other during the stay at home order if we don’t live together? Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller answers.

What’s safe and what’s not?

As some parts of the state, such as Ocean City and Harford and Carroll counties, look to get back to a sense of normalcy, questions have emerged about what Marylanders should consider safe given the differences between the counties.

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Public health experts offered advice about activities such as sports, play dates and even dating, with the consensus that residents should continue to exercise caution as they return to a partially reopened state.

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For example, people should wear cloth masks while indoors or when in close proximity to others; older adults remain particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus and should not be visited by people who may have been exposed to it; and congregating at a swimming pool does not decrease your risk of catching it despite chlorine’s ability to kill harmful bacteria.

As fewer people contract the virus and require hospitalization because of it, more activities and gatherings will qualify as safe. Until then, the risk of reducing the progress made remains high if people do not act responsibly.

A statewide, mail-in primary election has kinks

With the state’s primary election less than two weeks away, major kinks in the Maryland State Board of Elections’ largely mail-in voting plan have already surfaced.

Administrative errors caused delays in the mailing of ballots to residents of Baltimore City and Montgomery County — two jurisdictions with large minority populations that face disproportional access to the vote than other racial and ethnic groups.

The ballots also listed the wrong date for the primary. It’s scheduled for June 2, not April 28.

Voting advocates and many of the candidates running for state and city posts have urged the elections board to postpone the deadline for mailing in the ballot and add more in-person voting sites and drop boxes. The board voted in an emergency session Wednesday to add two in-person voting centers in Baltimore to account for the people who may never receive a ballot or do not have enough time to mail it back.

Many states have postponed their primaries over fears of large crowds and long lines assembling amid the coronavirus outbreak. But whether these states can safely — and adequately — stage a mostly mail-in election will create lessons for them to overcome by November.

Racial and ethnic disparities exist in nursing homes, too

A reporting partnership between the New York Times and The Baltimore Sun found that COVID-19 cases among nursing homes tended to reveal troubling disparities among those that service more people of color compared to those with predominantly white residents.

While the causes of the discrepancies remain unknown, some reasoned that predominantly black and Latino nursing home residents enter into older adulthood with more extreme health disadvantages than their white counterparts. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities serve as microcosms of the experience on the outside, medical professionals said, mirroring reality rather than improving upon it.

The reporting shows the virus has struck more than eight in 10 Maryland nursing homes with a high proportion of black and Latino residents, compared with four out of 10 mostly white facilities. The government’s rating of nursing homes did not play as much of a factor as race and ethnicity did.

Nursing homes in Maryland have fared poorer than those in nearly every other state. Maryland health department officials did not answer questions about why that could be.

More than half of the state’s fatalities related to COVID-19 have been traced back to nursing home residents, state data shows.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Scott Dance, Pamela Wood, Alison Knezevich, Luke Broadwater, Phillip Jackson, Wilborn P. Nobles III and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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