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Howard sees spike in COVID-19 cases as county approaches 200 deaths

Howard County is currently seeing some of its worst COVID-19 numbers of the pandemic.

This past week, the Maryland Department of Health reported a spike in COVID-19 cases in Howard County, including a record 222 reported cases on Thursday. The previous high before last week was 165 cases on Nov. 25.

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The average number of new cases per day in the past week is 151. In addition to the 222 cases on Thursday, another 203 Howard residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. Reporting typically slows down on weekends, but on Saturday and Sunday, a total of 269 positive tests were returned.

“We’re closely monitoring our data and, as expected, seeing a significant surge following the winter holidays and new year celebrations,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball wrote in an email. “Now more than ever, we need our residents to recommit to mitigation measures.”

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Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said the rise in COVID-19 cases is “concerning” and that now is a crucial time to follow health guidelines with the county’s vaccine rollout underway.

“What we are seeing is the post-holiday community spread of the virus,” Rossman wrote in an email. “It remains critical that we continue to follow those recommendations we know help to prevent the spread of the virus, even as we are vaccinating those in Phase 1A.”

For most of the pandemic, Howard County’s metrics have been better than the statewide numbers, sometimes even by a considerable amount. When other jurisdictions reinstituted restrictions such as banning indoor dining in the fall, Ball did not and pointed to the county’s encouraging metrics as a reason why.

However, Howard County’s numbers are now only slightly better than the state. The county’s weekly positivity rate — which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week — is 7.8%, compared to the statewide figure of 8.56%.

Howard’s weekly positivity rate reached 8.1% on Friday, the highest since early June.

The county’s seven-day rolling average new-case rate is now at a record 46.6 per 100,000 residents. The state’s rate is 50.46 per 100,000.

The increase in numbers in Howard County and across Maryland began in early November and has spiked twice due to both Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season. For much of the summer and early fall, the county’s weekly positivity rate hovered between 2% and 4% and the weekly case rate remained under 12.6.

However, Howard County has been over 5% in weekly positivity and 15 average new cases per 100,000 for 49 straight days. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have determined thresholds of 5% weekly positivity and 15 cases per 100,000 as when transmission is low enough to loosen restrictions.

In October, Rossman told the Howard County Board of Education that she was concerned about the risk the holidays posed due to the relaxing of mitigation efforts and family gatherings.

“You’ve been hearing about influenza. We’re going indoors more and, as much as [people] want to adhere to social distancing, Thanksgiving and Christmas and other holidays are coming,” Rossman said in October. “That emotional risk for some people may outweigh the benefit of socially distancing. I’m concerned about that.”

In total, the county has recorded nearly 13,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, and 195 residents have died from COVID-19.

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