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Health

Don’t look now, but Maryland is seeing an uptick in COVID cases as the holidays loom

There has been an uptick in coronavirus cases in Maryland and nationwide coming out of Thanksgiving and as the country gets ready for the winter holiday season, perhaps the start of a third wave since a pandemic was declared in March 2020.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 statewide have jumped 30% since the day before Thanksgiving, from 418 to 551 on Wednesday, according to Maryland Department of Health data.

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But Crystal Watson, a public health professor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it remains unclear whether Marylanders should brace for a wave of cases similar to last year’s.

“It’s not as big of a rise in cases as we’ve seen before, but it’s too early to say whether that means it’s going to be a milder winter than we’ve had previously throughout the pandemic,” Watson said.

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The state’s seven-day average positivity rate for COVID tests is 10.6%, a few percentage points higher than in mid-November, but still significantly lower than during the omicron wave a year ago, when nearly one in three COVID tests tracked by the state was coming back positive.

However, that data might not be as illuminating now as it had been in the past, Watson said.

Earlier in the pandemic, researchers estimated that three of every 10 COVID infections were being diagnosed and counted by public health officials, Watson said, but some now estimate that as few as three in every 100 COVID infections are being counted.

That’s in part because fewer people are testing, Watson said, and because people are often using at-home tests. This means it will be hard for local government officials and public health professionals to track how the virus is spreading and whether a large wave is underway.

Watson said she has not drilled down into the regional data recently, but it appears that cases are increasing throughout the state.

One heartening piece of data is that the uptick in hospitalizations remains small relative to past surges when hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, Watson said. This indicates that even if there is an undetected wave of COVID infections, most of those cases are having mild effects. That’s likely because of the protection offered by vaccines or prior infections, she said.

More concerning, however, is the simultaneous spike in infections of influenza and RSV, Watson said. COVID, the flu and RSV are all respiratory viruses, meaning diseases that take hold in noses, throats, lungs and other respiratory tracts.

Nicole Stallings, executive vice president of the Maryland Hospital Association, said hospitals have had a staffing shortage since before the pandemic, and this latest increase in hospitalizations is only making things tougher for health care workers.

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“These increases in COVID hospitalizations, flu hospitalizations as well as RSV have strained capacity across our hospitals,” Stallings said.






Stallings said the situation at Maryland’s hospitals is not as dire as during the worst parts of the COVID pandemic, but people should be seeking treatment at clinics when appropriate and “using hospital resources thoughtfully.”

“We’ve seen RSV decline, thankfully, since its peak that we saw in late October and early November, but we are at some of the highest rates that we’ve had for flu, and that’s not just in Maryland,” Stallings said. “That’s really the entire country.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resumed recommending that people wear masks as a precaution against the spread of such respiratory viruses.

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According to the CDC, the country is experiencing the highest hospitalization rate for influenza in more than a decade. Meanwhile, the outbreak of RSV has been especially prevalent among children, Watson said, and it’s led to shortages of fever reducers and antibiotics in some parts of the country.

“Respiratory viruses are so prevalent in our communities right now,” Watson said. “It’s going to be much harder to avoid than potentially in the past, especially with kids. I know my kids have been sick quite a bit since even the end of summer.”

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Watson recommended avoiding crowded areas, testing for COVID before going to a gathering, and staying home if sick with any of these respiratory viruses. Wearing a high-quality mask such as an N-95 remains an effective tool to prevent spreading the viruses, too, she said.

As a parent of two young children, Watson said she’s aware of the emotional toll of another holiday season potentially disrupted.

“I think it’s exhausting going into the holidays,” Watson said, especially as families decide whether to gather or stay apart. “It’s pretty hard on parents who have to deal with all of these respiratory infections and keep their kids healthy and safe. So that’s pretty scary. It’s a scary time for parents.”

Chase Cook, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said the agency is encouraging residents ages 5 and up to get their “Flooster,” which is both the flu vaccine shot and the COVID booster, before gathering with family and friends this holiday season.

“If anyone has been waiting to get their shots, the time is now,” Cook said in an email.


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