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Coronavirus: Here’s what you need to know to prepare as Maryland sees its first positive tests

Health officials say it’s not a matter of if — but when — coronavirus will spread in the United States. Here are some actions you can take to be prepared.

As Maryland health officials confirmed the state’s first three cases of coronavirus Thursday night, Maryland health officials have been putting together response plans should the virus become a pandemic.

Here’s what you need to know to prepare for a possible outbreak.

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How many patients are in Maryland? What about the United States?

There are now about 230 cases across the United States scattered across at least 16 states, including three cases confirmed in Maryland on Thursday, all in Montgomery County. There have been 12 deaths — 11 in Washington state and one in California.

At least 26 people have contracted the virus not by traveling or coming into contact with known travelers, but through exposure to others in the community. That is what’s known as community spread, and it’s concerning to public health officials.

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In Maryland as of Thursday night, three people have tested positive, 26 have tested negative and 12 tests are pending.

What is the coronavirus?

In December 2019, Chinese health officials announced that they were investigating a pneumonia outbreak of unknown etiology (cause) in the city of Wuhan, China, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus, has since infected more than 100,000 people in 88 countries, causing about 3,400 deaths, the vast majority of them in China. Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and pneumonia, state health officials said.

While the exact incubation period for this coronavirus has not yet been determined, it is believed that most infected people will develop symptoms between two days to two weeks after they were exposed, according to state health officials.

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Efforts to create a vaccine are underway, but one is not expected to be available until at least next year. A therapy may be available sooner, federal authorities have said.

How is Maryland preparing?

Earlier this week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan introduced emergency legislation granting the governor the authority to transfer resources from the state’s rainy day fund for Maryland’s novel coronavirus response.

Additionally, the governor submitted a supplemental budget that requests $10 million for emergency coronavirus preparedness expenses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that it plans to provide Maryland with $500,000 in initial funding to support the state’s virus response. The funds were for such activities as monitoring travelers, data management, lab equipment and supplies, staffing, infection control and testing.

On Thursday night, Hogan issued a state of emergency in announcing that three people in Montgomery County tested positive, a married couple in their 70s and an unrelated woman in her 50s. All three are in isolation in their homes, officials said. The governor said the patients contracted the virus while traveling overseas — he wouldn’t say where — and are in good condition.

Earlier in the week Hogan told Marylanders to be prepared for more infections, school closures and event cancellations, and to work from home as conditions change. This echoes advice CDC officials gave to all Americans on Feb. 25.

On Wednesday, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young raised the city’s emergency operations level to “watch level” and said city leaders would coordinate with local health officials, who are leading the city’s preparedness efforts, as well as the state’s emergency management office.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said last week that he is calling for $4 billion or more to be used exclusively for the coronavirus and fighting infectious disease. That includes development of a vaccine, interest-free loans for small businesses affected by an outbreak, and reimbursement to state and local governments for their spending on an outbreak.

How are secondary schools preparing?

A private all-girls Jewish school in Baltimore sent three students home early Wednesday because they may have come in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

In an email sent to parents, Bnos Yisroel school leaders said the three girls had “possible indirect contact” with a person who tested positive for the coronavirus in New York. The school, at 6300 Park Heights Ave, said it has contacted the Baltimore City and Maryland health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the local rabbi.

If Hogan were to decide he wanted to close schools, he has said he would make the decision collaboratively with the Maryland State Superintendent of Schools and Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Now that he has declared a state of emergency, he could order schools shut.

Maryland State Department of Education officials did not respond to questions about what protocols would be used for closing schools. Then-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley briefly closed a handful of schools for several days during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak at the advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How about colleges and universities?

Concerns about a potential outbreak of the coronavirus have forced Johns Hopkins officials to ban fans from attending the first and second rounds of the Division III men’s basketball tournament at Goldfarb Gymnasium in Baltimore on Friday and Saturday.

The decision was made late Thursday night, less than 24 hours before Yeshiva and Worcester Polytechnic Institute meet at 1 p.m. and Penn State Harrisburg and the Blue Jays play at 6 p.m.

On Tuesday, the University of Maryland, College Park and Towson University canceled all spring-break and summer study-abroad programs. Earlier, many schools canceled study-abroad programs in China. Maryland and Towson suspended study-abroad programs in Italy, which has seen a large share of confirmed cases, and the universities have told students to return home, reflecting recent changes in the CDC guidance. Maryland earlier suspended a study-abroad program in South Korea, where thousands of cases have also been confirmed.

Maryland previously had told students in Japan and Italy to be prepared to leave if the coronavirus becomes more prevalent in those countries. It also advised students on other study-abroad programs to limit their travel.

How are businesses responding?

Lawmakers on the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship said 30 million small businesses could potentially be disrupted by the virus.

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Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to Jovita Carranza, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, requesting information about how the agency intends to administer aid.

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U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger’s $4 billion plan for tackling the coronavirus would include interest-free loans for small businesses affected by an outbreak.

The port of Baltimore’s booming container terminal will reduce its operating hours this week because of declines in incoming cargo due to the international coronavirus outbreak, officials said last Friday.

Port authorities have implemented procedures to ensure that crew members have not been sick in the past two weeks. Cruise ship companies have instituted screening measures for passengers and won’t allow anyone onto the ships who have visited areas affected by the coronavirus or come into contact with others who have been to those areas in the past two weeks.

And the Under Armour brand is bracing for impact from the virus outbreak in China, where 600 Under Armour stores remain closed. The company expects a sales loss of about $50 million to $60 million in the first three months of this year alone.

A hotel in Pikesville on Thursday canceled the reservation of the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team over fears of the coronavirus, the coach of the Maccabees told The Associated Press.

Coach Elliot Steinmetz said the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel canceled the reservation, forcing the team to book rooms at a different hotel. A student at the Orthodox Jewish university has tested positive for the virus.

The team is scheduled to play Worcester Polytechnic Institute on Friday in the first round of the Division III tournament at Hopkins.

The Women of the World (WOW) Festival, which was expected to bring more than 1,000 attendees to Baltimore this weekend, has been canceled amid “growing concerns and uncertainty” about the coronavirus.

The festival, which had been scheduled to take place Saturday at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor, was expected to draw attendees from across the country, said organizers who added they decided to call off the festival “to side with safety and mitigate potential further spread.”

How is this affecting religious practices?

Maryland’s faith communities have been balancing proactivity with caution. Most leaders are counseling worshipers to stay home from services if they’re sick, as they might during an ordinary flu season, but to continue attending as normal unless the situation changes.

Some have asked congregants to alter worship practices to minimize the chances of contracting or spreading the virus.

The leader of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland issued a statement last weekend encouraging its more than 44,000 members of 117 congregations to refrain from shaking hands while “passing the peace” during services. Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton also discouraged the practice of “intinction,” a ritual in which congregants dip a piece of communion bread into a common cup.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, whose leader, Archbishop William E. Lori, is responsible for setting local policy, announced Tuesday that consecrated wine will not be offered during Mass. Lori also ordered parishioners to stop shaking hands during the sign of peace and instead, bow and say, “Peace be with you.”

Should authorities ever direct services to be canceled, worshipers could access the services already being livestreamed and broadcast via radio on Sundays, the archdiocese said.

Global fears about the virus did have a direct impact on some local Muslims, disrupting travel plans for about 80 members of the Islamic Society of Baltimore who were traveling in the Middle East for a religious pilgrimage known as umrah, according to Dr. Ed Tori, president of the Catonsville-based mosque. Saudi Arabian authorities announced last week that they were suspending entry for people taking the pilgrimage. The group rearranged travel plans and was set to return to the United States on Tuesday.

The director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, Howard Libit, said his organization is following the situation closely and sharing any new information from authorities with schools, synagogues and other groups in the Baltimore area. He and other officials will be meeting with constituent agencies this week to consider options should conditions worsen.

In the meantime, worshippers are taking the kinds of simple measures they do during all times of contagion, such as washing hands often and using sanitizers.

“For now, it’s the same precautions you want to take any winter,” Libit said.

What might this mean for my travel plans?

The CDC publishes travel health notices to inform travelers and clinicians about current health problems, like disease outbreaks in specific international destinations. Maryland health officials recommend travelers monitor the CDC health notices before embarking on a trip.

Over the weekend, U.S. officials announced heightened travel warnings for parts of Italy and South Korea, as well as a ban on travel to Iran.

The CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Iran, South Korea, Italy and China, excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Older adults or those who have chronic medical conditions should postpone travel to Japan if possible, the CDC also recommends. The agency is also conducting health screenings for travelers who arrived in the United States from China.

What are health officials saying?

Maryland state health officials say people can protect themselves and others against respiratory viruses by taking the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water.
  • Cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you are sick, stay home from work or school.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Practice good health habits.

Anyone exhibiting symptoms should call a doctor or emergency room before leaving home. Individuals exhibiting symptoms should wear a face mask if one is available, state officials said.

Marylanders can go to health.maryland.gov/coronavirus for the most up-to-date information, or dial 211 to talk to experts about any questions or concerns.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Colin Campbell, Alison Knezevich, Lorraine Mirabella and Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.

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