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Coronavirus in Maryland: Five takeaways from the week

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces Maryland's move to Phase 2 of its recovery

As the killing of George Floyd in the hands of Minnesota police officers sparks protests across the country, the effects of the coronavirus continue to wreak havoc on the black community in Maryland and elsewhere.

Black residents account for more than 16,000 of the state’s 55,858 cases, making up the largest share of infections among all the reported racial and ethnic groups in Maryland’s data set despite constituting roughly a third of the state’s population.

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Public health experts say there are many factors behind the disparity. Low-income black Marylanders have less access to medical care than their white counterparts. They also make up a large swath of the “essential” workforce, meaning they’re unable to stay home during the pandemic.

As protests against unequal treatment of black people by police continue, some worry about a future spike in coronavirus cases, while others highlight that the issues at the center of the protests are also important for public health.

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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.

Coronavirus risk at protests unclear

While public health institutions and professionals have offered support for the public protests — with former Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen calling out racism as a public health issue on Twitter — some have voiced concerns about the potential risk of spreading COVID-19 at these large gatherings.

While it remains too soon to tell whether protests correlate with spikes in cases because of the diesease’s incubation period, state and federal officials have come out strongly against assembling in large groups throughout the course of the pandemic.

In Baltimore, many of the protestors who took part in this week’s demonstration have worn face coverings such as masks and bandanas, and some have passed out hand sanitizers and wipes among the crowd.

Still, the virus can spread rapidly among groups of confined people — even ones comprised of mostly young people who are not as susceptible to developing serious illness as a result of the virus — and cause harm to vulnerable populations.

Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun this week that protestors are not immune from catching and spreading the virus.

“In some cases it only takes one big event, one mass gathering, to set off a new epidemic,” she said.

At a Wednesday news conference, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan called the police’s treatment of George Floyd “completely inexcusable,” but cautioned that people showing up to protests should seek to get tested for COVID-19 after.

“I believe people should be able to express their frustrations but I am concerned that people were so close together,” he said, adding that participants “shouldn’t be hugging grandma” after congregating at protests. “The virus is still out there and until we have a vaccine, we can’t guarantee that a spike won’t be out there.”

Maryland enters Phase 2 of recovery

Hogan’s administration approved the state’s move into its next phase of recovery, which allows most businesses deemed nonessential including tattoo parlors, car dealerships and tanning and nail salons to reopen with some restrictions in place. The governor encouraged as many people who can work from home to do so as long as possible.

While the state has not lifted its ban on groups of 10 or more from gathering, Hogan on Wednesday said that many continued to do so without reprimand.

“Nobody is following that cap on social gathering,” he said. “The 10 person limit is technically still in effect. I think every state still has that in place and nobody’s following that.”

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Watson, of Hopkins, said states that have lifted restrictions have produced “mixed results,” with some faring better than others and some precipitating new spikes in cases.

“There’s no one prognosis for reopening,” she said. “The more people who still take precaution — it will make a difference.”

Election Day in a pandemic

Maryland’s first largely mail-in election came and went — but not without snafus.

To curb the spread of the coronavirus, the state sent absentee ballots to every registered, eligible voter to be mailed back or deposited in a drop box by June 2. But people in Baltimore and Montgomery County received theirs later than expected, and many at the polls on Tuesday said they never received ballots at all.

While officials urged residents to vote by mail because of coronavirus concerns, in-person voting outpaced expectations. In Baltimore, more than 6,200 residents showed up at one of the city’s voting centers Tuesday. Some waited in line for several hours, with signs marked for social distancing, delaying the returns from going public until late Tuesday evening. The returns for Baltimore then disappeared from the state website for about nine hours, as a ballot error for District 1 rendered thousands of then uncountable by machines.

Elections staffers worked Thursday to manually copy and scan the erroneous ballots. At the same time, no official winner has been called in any city-run race — including competitive contests for mayor, City Council president and comptroller — as thousands of ballots remained quarantined and others continue to travel to their destination by mail.

State officials have less than six months to prepare for November’s general election, which will likely involve a hybrid of in-person and mail-in voting.

Contact tracing center opens

A contact tracing center housing hundreds of state contact tracers opened this week as Maryland’s case investigating capacity continues to expand.

Contact tracing, identified by Hogan as a key component of the state’s recovery, helps slow the spread of the coronavirus as investigators track cases and trace them back to their origins and points of possible transmission. Those infected will receive calls from contact tracers — listed as “MD COVID” on caller ID — after they test positive, and will be asked to stay home and list the people they have been closely exposed to within 48 hours of the onset of their symptoms.

But with hundreds of new cases emerging in Maryland every day, and thousands surfacing before the network fully ramped up, some worry that the state effort comes too little, too late — especially as the state moves toward reopening.

“I worry that opening up more fully, without having a significant capacity in hospitals and capabilities to do contact tracing and identification, and testing, leaves us without the tools to manage if we have a spike in cases,” said Hopkins’ Watson. “I hope the downward trend in cases and hospitalization continues, but I think there are some points of concern.”

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Contact tracers must also navigate a series of challenges, including tracking down people who don’t answer phone calls, communicating with people who do not speak English, and assisting people with quarantining. For a force of about 1,400 — which works out to about 23 per 100,000 people in Maryland, below the 30 recommended by the National Association of County and City Health Officials — they have their work cut out for them.

What exactly is this positivity rate?

Hogan on Wednesday said the state has made significant progress in lowering its positivity rate, defined as the number of infected individuals who test positive for COVID-19 compared to the number of total tests conducted. States should aim for low rates to prove that they are testing large quantities of people and not just the sickest. Johns Hopkins, tracking positivity rates in U.S. states and territories, cites a recommendation from the World Health Organization of a 5% or lower positivity rate as meeting the criteria needed to reopen safely.

As it stands, Maryland currently hovers around 10% — lower than before, but still twice as high as this particular recommendation. Hogan, said he has been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines instead, which allow him a bit more leeway with his recovery plan.

“As a threshold for entering Stage 2, CDC guidelines call for a downward trajectory in the positivity rate below 15% for 14 days after entering Stage 1. Maryland has now been below the 15% positivity mark for 14 straight days," he said Wednesday. Hogan said only Prince George’s and Montgomery counties had positivity rates higher than 10%.

“These metrics allow us to safely begin Stage 2 of our Roadmap to Recovery and take more steps that are critical to getting our economy back on track and getting Marylanders back to work,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Phil Davis, Colin Campbell, Emily Opilo, Talia Richman and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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