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18 Maryland residents exposed to coronavirus on cruise ships; state urges people over age 60 to avoid large crowds

Eighteen more Marylanders are being monitored for the novel coronavirus after being exposed to it on cruise ships, including one that toured the Nile River and another that docked Monday in California after being held off the coast.

And as health officials accepted that the virus may have spread beyond containment, Gov. Larry Hogan urged residents over age 60 to avoid large crowds.

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“We can expect the number of cases to continue to rise,” the Republican governor said Monday.

In fact, the number of confirmed cases grew to six Monday night. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a tweet at 7:19 p.m. that a county resident tested positive for the virus, and Hogan confirmed that a little more than an hour later. The governor added that the resident contracted the virus during out-of-state travel, that there appear to be no major concerns of exposure risk to the community and that there was no connection to the previous positive cases.

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In other developments Monday, health officials said they have quarantined family members of an infected Harford County woman, and Towson University asked nine students and a staffer who attended a conference in Washington where others later turned up sick to isolate themselves.

And public schools in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City have canceled out-of-state field trips and international travel, though Baltimore city and county students still will be able to go to D.C.

Hogan laid out the cruise-related exposures at a State House news conference. Six state residents took trips from Feb. 19 to Wednesday on the same Egyptian cruise ship that three Montgomery County residents came back from infected with the virus. Two of the six are showing symptoms associated with the respiratory illness, the governor said.

Meanwhile, 12 Marylanders are aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship that authorities held off the coast of San Francisco for days with at least 21 of 3,500 people on board infected with COVID-19, the disease triggered by the coronavirus.

Hogan said all those passengers were being quarantined and would be tested. Passengers from Maryland will go to military bases in Texas and Georgia until it is certain they aren’t infected.

Hogan also revealed that two COVID-19 cases confirmed in the state Sunday are linked to travel to Turkey, in the Harford County woman’s case, and to Egypt and Thailand, in the case of a Montgomery County man in his 60s. He said the Harford woman, who is in her 80s, is the first person known to have contracted the virus while traveling to Turkey.

He stressed that there is no evidence the virus is being passed among Marylanders who haven’t traveled overseas recently, at least not yet.

“All of our cases at this point are related to foreign travel, and so far we have no cases of transmission here in the state of Maryland,” said Hogan, who nevertheless ordered all out-of-state travel by state employees canceled.

State health officials are focusing efforts to soften the virus’ blow on elderly residents, he said. He urged residents over 60 and with compromised health to avoid large gatherings, a recommendation he said came out of an hour-and-a-half-long meeting he attended Monday with Vice President Mike Pence and other governors at the White House.

Hogan said state officials would meet with representatives from the long-term care industry Tuesday to ensure older residents are being monitored and protected from exposure.

In the General Assembly on Monday, Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Sen. Clarence K. Lam announced emergency legislation that would grant the governor expanded authority if he decides to declare a “catastrophic health emergency.” Hogan has declared a general state of emergency, but not a specific health emergency.

“We’re really untested waters when it comes to what potentially could be a pandemic,” said Lam, a physician and a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties who drafted the bill. “With proper precautions and planning, we can help protect a lot of individuals and that’s what this bill does.”

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The bill would allow him to ban insurance companies from charging patients for the testing as well as allow the state to provide tests for the uninsured. The governor also could require any vaccine developed to be administered at no cost to patients.

The measure would allow for expanding the use of telehealth programs, prohibiting employers from firing workers who are required to be in isolation or quarantine, and setting price limits on specific goods and services to avoid price gouging. All the provisions of the bill would expire after April 2021.

The Maryland Insurance Administration already used Hogan’s declaration of a state of emergency to order insurance plans regulated by the state to waive out-of-pocket costs for testing, allow extra prescription medications and provide access to treatment that doctors deem necessary. CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest private insurer, followed suit.

The governor and presiding officers of the General Assembly also signed emergency legislation Monday freeing up $50 million from the state’s “rainy day” fund to combat the coronavirus. They urged residents to look out for one another, and to do their part to stop the coronavirus’ spread.

“It’s very easy to drop into a tribal mentality, a fear of the other,” Ferguson said. “We are here in this together more than ever.”

Hogan said District of Columbia and New Jersey officials are taking the lead on tracing the contacts of two people who may have exposed people to the coronavirus at events in and near Maryland — services at Christ Church Georgetown in Washington, whose rector has tested positive for COVID-19, and the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, which a patient with the virus attended.

The church congregation, which includes Maryland residents, has been urged to quarantine themselves. But conference attendees have not because not as many of them are believed to have been exposed to the virus, Hogan said.

Florida officials on Monday ordered residents returning from some foreign travel to self-quarantine for two weeks, while in Washington, leaders considered forbidding large gatherings. But Hogan said Maryland officials are not yet making such drastic decisions.

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Going forward, state leaders will be taking advice from a new coronavirus task force that will advise officials on how to respond to the outbreak. Members include experts from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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The nine students and staffer from Towson University attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, held March 1-3. There have been at least two reports of COVID-19 cases from the conference for AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group.

The university asked them to self-quarantine at home for at least two weeks from their last day at the conference.

Classrooms where a student had been "are being wiped clean with disinfectants today,” though the student has displayed no symptoms while in self-quarantine, according to an email sent to faculty. Faculty of these classes were given the choice to convert their classes to an online format, the email said.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Liz Bowie, Cody Boteler and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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