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Maryland now testing seven patients for coronavirus; still no confirmed cases

Maryland health officials are now testing seven people for the new coronavirus this week amid concern about its spread to more states and deaths in Washington state.

There continue to be no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maryland, as results for six others with serious respiratory symptoms have come back negative, state officials reported.

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The Maryland Department of Health has not released any information about the people, other than that some had traveled to heavily affected areas in China.

Officials say they expect to find more people infected with the virus as testing is expanded to state and local labs, including the state lab in Maryland, which was approved Tuesday to test patients for COVID-19. Local testing will shorten the amount of time it takes to get results to a day from the several days it took from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Atlanta.

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“The ability to test in our own facility in Baltimore is crucial to our rapid response efforts, which are at the forefront of Maryland’s strategy to minimize risk,” Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall said in a statement. “We’re working with [state health] laboratories to coordinate the use of these tests and will keep the public informed about cases and results.”

Expanded testing was delayed in the United States as health officials developed and disseminated a diagnostic test. The CDC also limited who could be tested based on a set of parameters that some began to view as too narrow.

The CDC expanded the criteria for testing last week. In addition to testing those who had respiratory symptoms after returning from an affected country or those in close contact with someone who had traveled, the CDC recommends testing those who are hospitalized with no other explanation for their serious symptoms.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing, though most people suffer only mild cases and don’t always know they are infected. About 16% suffer more severe symptoms and need hospitalization, according to the CDC. Scientists estimate the infection kills fewer than 1% of those infected.

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State health officials will continue to monitor the public for those who should be tested, including people who have returned from China in the past 14 days. Officials are asking them to stay home and monitor themselves for symptoms. Under CDC guidelines, the health department is supposed to stay in touch with such travelers and instruct them about how to notify officials and seek care if they become sick.

State health officials would not say whether monitoring has been expanded to travelers returning from other places where the virus is spreading, such as Italy and South Korea.

The University of Maryland, which suspended its study abroad program in Italy last week, also asked students to return to their homes rather than the campus and to “self-monitor” and “self-isolate” for two weeks. That means staying home and checking for symptoms. Other students may be given the same instructions, including three Goucher College students told to return home from Italy.

If any other current ongoing programs enter a “Warning Level 3,” they will close, the University of Maryland said.

On Tuesday, the university and Towson University canceled all spring-break and summer study-abroad sessions. The university urged any students with chronic health problems or those who are immunocompromised to return home.

CDC officials said Tuesday that they believe the greatest risk is to people who have traveled and those who are in close contact with them, such as their family, as well as health care workers caring for the infected.

In addition to expanding testing in state labs, federal authorities have asked certified private labs to begin testing to expand the number of people tested and the speed of testing.

The CDC still will take an accounting of results, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She said, however, officials expect states to have the most up-to-date information within their borders.

There are now more than 100 cases across the United States scattered across at least 15 states, with 27 cases in Washington alone. There have been nine U.S. deaths, all in Washington state. Worldwide, more than 92,000 people have been sickened and 3,100 have died, the vast majority of them in China.

“We expect to find new cases,” Messonnier said. “We will increase our testing, but we expect to be a small part of the overall testing that will be available.”

The CDC said it will test about 75,000 people a week. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said recently that outside labs would be able to test a million people a day, but the actual number of tests has been significantly less than that so far.

The Association of Public Health Laboratories reported last week that the expansion of testing in state labs will help increase surveillance of the virus in the community. Scott Becker, the association’s CEO, said in a statement that he expects public labs to be able to conduct 10,000 tests a day, in addition to whatever private labs are able to do.

“We are greatly encouraged by expanding the testing capacity to the clinical laboratory community," he said. "We also recognize the importance that testing for COVID-19 must be done in close coordination with public health counterparts. This is necessary to ensure that tests are performed to quality standards; cases are not missed or misdiagnosed; hospitals doing testing are effectively isolating patients with positive results; and proper follow-up is conducted, including contact tracing.”

It’s not known whether other labs in Maryland will be conducting any tests.

The state health department said it was not charging patients for the coronavirus tests, though people’s health care facilities may charge for blood tests.

The expansion of testing is an appropriate step in Maryland and across the country, said Trudy Henson, public health program director at the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

She said at first the priority was rightly on people who had traveled to China, especially when testing availability was limited. With the virus spreading in the community, it now “makes sense to widen the net,” she said.

“Certainly we want to see ramping up at the state and local level,” Henson said. “Ideally, we would have had that capability stepped up already.”

She said much of the world was using a test developed in Germany, but U.S. officials wanted to create their own test, putting the nation a bit behind on testing. And testing in-house at the CDC made sense when there were fewer potential cases so the agency could track the disease directly.

Now that there are more cases and the tests are becoming more available, bringing in capable private labs for testing also makes sense since there are facilities with sophisticated research capabilities.

“It’s time to scale up,” she said. “Maybe past time.”

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Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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