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U.S. Surgeon General says Baltimore still has time to ‘turn things around’ on coronavirus spread

Even as the White House cautions that Baltimore could turn into a hotspot for the coronavirus, the U.S. Surgeon General struck an optimistic tone while visiting one of the city’s testing sites Friday.

Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams said residents don’t need to wait for a vaccine to get the virus under control if they heed guidance on wearing face masks, washing their hands and keeping a distance from other people.

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“Baltimore is not quite in the red,” he said. “We have an opportunity now to either turn things back in a positive direction or to see things continue to go in a negative direction. The power to reopen really lies in each of our hands.

“The metrics are starting to trend in a bad direction,” he said, “but we still have time to turn things around.”

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The city is seeing troubling trends in new cases, deaths and hospital utilization rates. It has added more than 1,000 cases since August began, including 164 on Friday. In all, Baltimore has reported more than 12,200 cases as of Friday, with nearly 400 confirmed deaths. Its positivity rate remains higher than the statewide average, at 5.7% over the past seven days.

Maryland as a whole reported 801 new cases of the coronavirus and 14 more deaths Friday. The positivity rate dropped under 4% for the first time.

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, recently singled out Baltimore as one of the nation’s areas of concern for coronavirus outbreaks.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said now is not the time for residents to let their guard down.

“We’re in a pandemic,” she said. “I’ll say it again: We’re in a pandemic.”

Roughly three hours after Adams and Dzirasa addressed reporters outside the Baltimore Convention Center testing site, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s latest executive order altering restrictions on restaurants, churches and malls was scheduled to go into effect.

The mayor simultaneously loosened restrictions on restaurants — allowing them to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity — while tightening the rules for other indoor gathering spaces. Public health experts have warned that the coronavirus spreads between people more easily when they are indoors, as compared to outdoors.

Religious services, stores, casinos and indoor recreation establishments, like bowling alleys, will be capped at 25% occupancy. The city also capped other indoor and outdoor gatherings at 25 people.

These limits are stricter than those statewide, which require buildings to be capped at half-capacity.

Some public health experts and City Council members criticized Young for moving to relax rules on restaurants when community transmission is still of grave concern.

“We know indoor spaces with inadequate ventilation with lots of people are places of greatest risk,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “While the city has a high positive rate and a high incidence of the disease, I would not be advising we reopen any of those large indoor spaces.”

When asked whether a city identified by the White House as an area of concern should be lifting restrictions on indoor dining, Dzirasa responded by saying the mayor faces intense challenges. The health commissioner said Young is in a position of having to weigh economic factors along with public health.

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Adams responded that while people are dying for COVID-19, he’s also concerned about those who are falling sick or dying because of the economic strain of the shutdowns.

“It’s not either reopen or you care about health,” the Surgeon General said. “If the mayor is choosing to reopen, it’s incumbent on citizens to do the right things.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jean Marbella and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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