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Autopsies in Maryland show much higher rate of COVID-19 than expected

A new study suggests that far more Marylanders have been infected with COVID-19 than previously thought, a proportion higher than what was reported in any area except for New York City.

Johns Hopkins University researchers reported Monday that their look at 500 autopsy reports from several weeks in May and June in the state found 10% had antibodies for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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The findings, published Dec. 15 in the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases, is the first such study in Maryland to look at antibodies that are produced by the body to fight infection.

“This study is significant because it includes people who may not otherwise be captured in seroprevalence studies,” said lead author Keri Althoff, associate professor of epidemiology in the Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We may expand our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 spread by incorporating antibody testing in decedents.”

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The Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is required to perform autopsies on anyone in Maryland who dies in a car crash or by homicide, suicide or drug overdose, as well as those who die suddenly or unexpectedly without a doctor present.

The study found the COVID-19 antibodies were more prevalent in the blood of Hispanic people, which researchers said reflected the infections in the Baltimore area in June.

Althoff also found the same proportion of people with antibodies died in car crashes as died of natural causes, so those who died in accidents may be “a unique sentinel population” for infections, meaning they may be representative of the population at large.

As a comparison to the autopsy findings, the Maryland Department of Health reported Monday that there have been more than 253,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, out of a population of just over 6 million — or about 4%. About 5,300 people have died.

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