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Maryland will start reporting info about race of coronavirus patients, governor says

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan gives coronavirus update and announces that the Greater Baltimore Washington Corridor has been designated as COVID-19 hotspot.

Maryland will start reporting information by the end of the week about the race of patients who contract the coronavirus and those who die from it, Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday.

Maryland health officials have faced pressure for about a week to release the racial breakdown of confirmed cases by legislators and others concerned that there are disparities in testing and care for people of color.

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The Republican governor said he is directing the state health lab to report such data from its tests and “be as proactive as anyone in the nation” in pushing private labs to provide the same data.

“I want to caution that 90% of the testing is being done by doctors and hospitals who are sending tests to private labs outside of the state, which have not been keeping such data,” said Hogan, cautioning that there will be significant gaps in data initially.

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The governor’s pledge to provide the data on the race of confirmed Maryland cases came after he toured a 250-bed field hospital being assembled at the Baltimore Convention Center. The field hospital is among several efforts the state is making to increase its hospital capacity in anticipation of a surge of coronavirus patients.

As of Tuesday morning, Maryland reported more than 4,300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus with more than 1,000 hospitalizations. The number of deaths in the state topped 100.

A growing number of other states and cities have begun releasing racial breakdowns, showing a troubling trend that black Americans make up a disproportionate number of those getting sick and dying from the virus. In Chicago, for example, about 30% of residents are black, but they make up 70% of those who have died from the coronavirus.

Maryland releases the gender, age and county of residence for those who have died of the coronavirus. Anne Arundel County just began offering a breakdown of confirmed cases by ZIP code.

Hogan said there are no federal requirements for private labs to collect such racial data, and he said he would not want to push companies so much that they would refuse to handle Maryland cases.

Del. Nick Mosby — the Baltimore Democrat who has been leading the charge to get the state to publish a racial breakdown of cases — said he still has questions about the delay and completeness of the data. But he’s heartened that officials soon will be able to examine disparities in testing, treatment and health outcomes among different demographic groups.

“It will force us to really think through a lens of equity,” said Mosby, who is running for City Council president. "This provides us with an opportunity to, in real time, develop a process that will help improve lives in all communities.”

Mosby and others have raised concerns that availability of testing and treatment for the coronavirus falls along the same lines as many other disparities in Baltimore, with white residents enjoying better access to health care than residents of color.

State Sen. Charles Sydnor said he’s glad the state is finally planning to publish data on the race of those known to be infected with the coronavirus. He was among 80 state lawmakers who signed a letter to the governor pressing for the data.

Sydnor, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, said the information could help health officials develop specific messaging for communities that are likely to be the most impacted. That’s key, he said, when some black people have shared a myth that they are somehow more immune.

“It’s certainly a move in the right direction,” Sydnor said of Hogan’s announcement.

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, a Democrat who is running for mayor, introduced a bill this week that would require the city’s health commissioner to report patients’ races and ZIP codes during a health emergency.

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Officials in neighboring Washington, D.C., began offering a breakdown by race this week, although the patients’ race was unknown in nearly half of cases.

Data on the race of coronavirus patients also could come from the nonprofit Chesapeake Regional Information System for Patients, or CRISP, a nonprofit that collects information about hospital patients. Funded by the state and hospital systems, CRISP data is normally used to spot health trends and help set hospital rates in Maryland.

CRISP’s Maryland Executive Director Craig Behm said his team is trying to mine the data to see if they can send demographic information on coronavirus cases to state epidemiologists, “so they can start to understand who is being infected, and which cases are more severe.”

Members of Congress also are pushing for more data at the national level. U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and more than a dozen others sent a letter Tuesday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seeking data on coronavirus relating to race, gender and whether the patient is a health care worker.

During Hogan’s tour of the convention center’s makeshift hospital, he wore a black cloth mask made by state prison inmates, removing it for the news conference. Other officials who stood behind him also wore masks, slipping them off when it came time for them to speak.

Hogan and medical experts remained reluctant to predict when a surge may happen or how strong it may be. They also declined to speculate when Maryland might be able to ease the stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines that have upended daily life and the economy in hopes of limiting the spread of the virus.

Hogan also highlighted support for Baltimore, which is part of the Baltimore-Washington corridor recently designated by the federal government as an emerging “hotspot” for the virus.

“This virus continues to spread in every jurisdiction in our state, but the concentration of cases has intensified, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington corridor,” Hogan said.

Baltimore is now part of a “priority” corridor designated by the federal government, Hogan said. The designation applies to 12 jurisdictions “which demand urgent federal attention," including Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles and Queen Anne’s counties.

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In addition to the convention center field hospital, the state is setting up a testing site at Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore. Baltimore officials said they hope to have the Pimlico site open by the end of the week, joining state testing sites a state vehicle emissions testing stations and at FedEx Field in Landover.

State law enforcement agencies, such as the Maryland State Police and Maryland Transportation Authority Police, are taking on “increased assignments” in the city, as scores of Baltimore Police officers have been forced off the job and into quarantine.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 12 city police officers have tested positive for the coronavirus, 67 were awaiting test results and 150 were in quarantine as a precaution.

And as efforts continue to limit the spread of the virus and expand the capacity to treat patients, state officials also are beginning to look at how to handle an increase of bodies, should fatality rates spike.

State officials confirmed they are looking into leasing two ice skating rinks that could serve as makeshift morgues, if necessary. But Hogan walked that back during his news conference, emphasizing it’s only an idea and no paperwork has been signed.

“It’s just something that is being considered,” he said.

Hogan also called attention to his latest executive order, issued on Sunday, that authorizes local health departments to shut down businesses that are “unable or unwilling to cooperate in a manner consistent with social distancing protocols and in that in their judgement poses an unreasonable risk of spreading COVID-19.”

State and local police officers are authorized to assist health officials in such situations.

Hogan admonished the few businesses who are not following rules about social distancing and “who are potentially putting their customers and their staff at risk.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo, Kevin Rector and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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