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As Maryland coronavirus cases surge past 5,500, schools prepare for possibility of online learning into the fall

Maryland saw its largest daily spike in new coronavirus cases Wednesday with more than 1,000 new confirmed infections, as the state’s top education official said she was preparing for the possibility that public schools could remain closed into the fall.

The state announced an additional 1,158 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the total to more than 5,500 cases overall. The increase came after two consecutive days in which the number of new cases appeared to level off.

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Gov. Larry Hogan attributed the increase in part to an uptick in testing and commercial labs clearing backlogs of tests. Hogan said 30% of the confirmed cases added Wednesday were for tests performed in March.

“The Baltimore-Washington corridor has become an emerging hot spot,” the Republican governor said. “An increase in new infections is just one of the reasons for today’s significant jump in new cases. This is also due to our ongoing efforts to ramp up testing in Maryland, with more private labs coming on board and the expansion of commercial lab capacity.”

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Maryland also reported 124 deaths from the virus, an increase of 21 from the total announced the day before.

As cases continued to rise, the state’s top education official said public schools must be prepared to continue teaching classes online into the fall and winter, if the spread of the coronavirus continues or the virus makes a resurgence.

Speaking to a bipartisan work group of Maryland lawmakers, State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon said she is ramping up online and distance-learning capabilities in case schools must remain closed into the 2020-2021 academic year. Some epidemiologists have said the state could see a second wave of the virus in the fall.

“I’m not sure we are going to be doing school in the same way going forward,” Salmon told lawmakers. “We’re not sure that is not something that we’re going to revisit in the fall or the winter. I’m really focusing much of our resources on the expansion and accountability wrapped around online learning and distance learning.”

Salmon has ordered schools closed through April 24 ― with an at-home curriculum beginning this week ― while state officials evaluate the spread of COVID-19. Salmon said the at-home work will count towards students’ progression in their respective grades.

State officials emphasized Salmon’s comments were about preparation and not a prediction of when schools will or won’t reopen. Hogan said in a television interview that the state has not decided when schools can reopen or if they will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic calendar.

“We’re taking it on a week-by-week basis," he said. "We don’t know when this is going to peak and when we’re going to get back to normal.”

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents the majority of teachers in the state, said that if distance learning needs to continue for months, a number of issues must be addressed. For instance, laptops are not available to all students and staff members, and there are gaps in the training that teachers need to do the work, she said.

“This is showing us where our deficits are, which is good. If we are going to do this long term, we are going to have to do a lot to fill in those deficits,” Bost said.

Salmon’s comments came during a meeting of the Joint Covid-19 Response Legislative Workgroup, a panel that is researching what steps the legislature can take to address the fallout from the pandemic.

During the meeting, held virtually, Senate President Bill Ferguson said all 681 bills passed by the legislature during a shortened session that ended last month — including a sweeping overhaul of the state’s public schools — have been sent to Hogan’s desk for his consideration. The governor has 30 days decide whether to sign, veto or let bills become law without his signature.

The work group, which is chaired by Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, also heard from Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall.

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Neall said the health department has entered into an agreement with the University of Maryland medical school in Baltimore to form an initiative that can test up to 20,000 people a day. The results will help inform Maryland officials about when they can begin to lift restrictions on businesses and gatherings, Neall said.

“We’re helping them stand up a testing facility that will have the capacity of 20,000 tests a day,” Neall said. “That will get us into the ballgame for widespread testing.”

Neall also told lawmakers that the state now has at least 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Maryland’s nursing homes. Hogan announced Tuesday the formation of “strike teams” to bring state resources to nursing homes to try to limit the spread.

The health secretary also told lawmakers the state now has 1,178 ventilators on hand, with more than twice that number ordered. Neall said state officials are beginning to receive shipments of protective gear and other supplies that they are delivering to counties in need.

Despite the increase in cases, area hospitals said they are not yet overrun with patients. Bob Atlas, CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said the 26.5% jump in confirmed cases in the last 24 hours is “concerning,” but hospitals remain able to handle the surge.

Atlas said the University of Maryland Medical System, MedStar Health, LifeBridge Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine are coordinating patients within their systems, as well as with state health and emergency management officials. That will help keep hospitals, including those closer to Washington, from becoming overloaded.

Hospitals across the state are ramping up capacity, planning for treating patients within their walls and inside about 100 specialized tents the state has ordered. They are different from triage tents serving people who arrive at the hospitals for care.

There also are two new hospital facilities in the works to accommodate hundreds of patients, one inside the Baltimore Convention Center and another at a shuttered hospital in Laurel.

“We are getting close to full capacity, if you consider what’s normal capacity, in a couple of places,” Atlas said. “But they are not overflowing yet. ... So, it’s not the level of infection that leads to the kinds of news stories you see in New York. We hope not to get there.”

During a Zoom presentation Wednesday to members of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Johns Hopkins Health System President Kevin Sowers said Hopkins has had confirmed 1,048 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. It had 186 patients in the system as of Wednesday morning.

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Of those, 20% percent are on ventilators, which Sowers called a typical statistic in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"We have not met our surge,” he told the business organization.

Meanwhile, telemedicine visits have ballooned from eight patients a day to more than 1,200, Sowers said.

“Out of something really horrific that is happening in our world, this will also force us to look at ways that we can change and become better at delivering health care services to our communities” in the future, Sowers said.

Dr. Brian Garibaldi, director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, said the hospital was taking some of the sickest patients from the more heavily hit Washington suburbs.

The hospital has added multiple ICU units to treat COVID-19 patients and has staff that has trained for years for such a pandemic. Garibaldi said there have been about 100 ICU patients in recent weeks with close to 40 now. Many more are being treated outside of the ICUs.

“We’re not overwhelmed," Garibaldi said, "but we certainly are very, very busy and it’s no longer business as usual.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

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