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Washington, Baltimore metro areas lead U.S. in positive test rates as hospitalizations in Maryland continue to decline

Federal officials identified Baltimore and Washington Friday as leading the nation’s metropolitan areas with the highest positive coronavirus testing rates, leading all other urban regions in the ratio of confirmed cases to the number of people swabbed.

The news followed the addition of 893 new cases of COVID-19 to Maryland’s tally, pushing the total to 44,424 as the number of people requiring hospital care continued to decline.

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Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said during a Friday news briefing that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Washington and Northern Virginia, have the highest positive coronavirus test return rate in the country, followed by Baltimore.

“These are places where we really have seen a stalling, or an increase in cases,” Birx said. “All the other metros are almost exclusively below 10%. So we see this as great progress across the board.”

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Public health officials and the World Health Organization are monitoring these rates, saying that communities with extensive testing have positive rates between 3% and 12%. When positive tests rates are higher than that, it means that likely only the sickest patients are being tested and others who are infected aren’t being identified.

Maryland’s overall rate of positive tests over the last week is just under 19%. Its positive test rate ranked second worst out of 29 states and U.S. territories above WHO’s recommended 5% rate of positive tests, according to Johns Hopkins researchers, behind only Puerto Rico.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Friday more widespread testing will help the city lower its positivity rate, which has hovered around 20%.

“Our goal is to expand testing, but we’ll be looking at the positivity rate knowing it’s a great indicator of just how widespread the prevalence of COVID-19 is,” she said.

To further expand the state’s testing capacity, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office announced Friday that three additional testing sites would open outside Walmart stores in Cambridge, Frederick and Fruitland. People will administer their own swabs at these locations, according to a news release. The sites which will be open three days a week.

“With the addition of test sites at some of our Walmart stores, we are continuing to make significant progress on our long-term testing strategy for the state," Hogan said in a statement.

The Republican governor has said that expanding the state’s testing capacity proves vital to Maryland’s ability to reopen, as does providing more personal protective gear, beefing up hospital capacity and ramping up the state’s contact tracing operation.

The governor also issued an executive order earlier this week allowing the state’s 1,200 pharmacies to conduct tests.

On Friday, the number of hospitalizations in Maryland due to coronavirus reached their lowest point since April 19.

It was the second consecutive day that hospitalizations were below 1,400, with 1,329 sickened people occupying beds in the state, officials reported. Hogan’s administration considers the number of hospitalizations the most important metric to track in the state’s recovery.

The state also confirmed 47 additional deaths. The official death toll now stands at 2,092 Marylanders, which does not include 115 possible fatalities due to COVID-19 that have not been confirmed by a laboratory test.

In all, the Maryland Department of Health reports more than 227,000 tests have been run, with 183,478 of them negative.

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The state’s positive testing rate may start to come down since Hogan opened testing to those without symptoms but who may have been exposed earlier this week. Thursday was the first day people could seek such test without an appointment at the Maryland State Fairgrounds testing site in Timonium, which reached capacity in less than an hour.

The coronavirus continues to disproportionately infect people of color more than their white counterparts. Black, Hispanic and Latino Marylanders make up over 23,000 of the state’s confirmed cases, despite both groups being minorities in the overall population. White people account for nearly 8,900 of the reported cases.

Meanwhile, adults older than 80 make up the majority of the state’s 2,092 deaths, with more than 950 fatalities. But people in between 30 and 39 account for more cases than any other age range, with 8,189.

Prince George’s and Montgomery counties lead other jurisdictions in the state in case counts, with 13,077 and 9,432 respectively. Baltimore County and Baltimore City rank third and fourth, with 5,170 and 4,492 cases.

The 10 ZIP codes with the highest numbers of cases reside in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, with the exception of 21224 in Baltimore and Baltimore County, which ranks seventh out of 10.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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