As the growth of coronavirus infections in Baltimore slows, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced Thursday an increase of mobile, on-demand COVID-19 testing, including offering swabs at Pimlico Race Course without a doctor’s referral or an appointment.
Young said the expansion will help “reduce barriers we know our residents have experienced.”
“We need residents to continue mitigating efforts to help ensure that the trends experienced elsewhere across country are not felt here in Baltimore City,” Young said. “I want to thank the majority of Baltimoreans who have heeded the warnings and followed the guidance. We will continue to monitor the data daily.”
Residents can schedule appointments online without a doctor’s referral. And even without an appointment, they can receive tests at Pimlico on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as long as supplies are available. Young said. Appointments, however, are strongly encouraged.
Additionally, new mobile testing sites will be offered starting next week.
The expanded efforts are available through a partnership with the city’s health department, Johns Hopkins Medicine, the University of Maryland Medical Center and the advocacy group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.
As of Thursday, the city had 8,155 confirmed cases and at least 346 deaths. The state reported 586 new cases and 11 more fatalities Thursday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 71,447, and 3,160, respectively.
For the first time since state officials began tracking the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March, Maryland reported 14 straight days of a seven-day average testing positivity rate below 5%. The benchmark matches the World Health Organization’s recommendation of such a stretch before governments begin easing virus-related restrictions.
Thursday’s reported rate of 4.53% is a steep drop from the state’s peak seven-day average rate of 26.92% on April 17. Much of Maryland’s decline in positivity rate coincided with increased testing statewide.
Hospitalizations, meanwhile, ticked upward by eight patients Thursday to 406.
The mayor eased restrictions in Baltimore about three weeks ago when the city joined the rest of the state in Phase 2 of recovery. The latest stage of recovery means restaurants can serve a limited number of guests indoors and pools, houses of worship, salons, gyms and social amenities, such as the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and National Aquarium, can open.
Young, a Democrat, did not say how soon he expected the city to enter the final phase of recovery. To move to Phase 3, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths must continue trending downward. If those indicators tick upward for a five-day stretch, the city would reimpose restrictions.
He said anyone who is experiencing coronavirus symptoms — including a fever, shortness of breath, a cough and loss of taste or smell — should call their doctor or the United Way’s 211 helpline.
The city’s health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the city averaged 1,500 tests per day last week and the city’s seven-day positivity rate was 5.3%.
Despite the positive trends, Dzirasa warned that the rate in some city ZIP codes is higher than 20%.
“This serves as a stark reminder that this pandemic persists and continues to pose a threat to the health and well-being of every city resident, but it also reminds us that this pandemic is affecting some communities more than others,” she said.
The expansion of mobile testing will help ensure the communities hardest hit by the outbreak receive the services they need, she said. Testing at the mobile sites will be provided on a first come, first served basis.
Schedules and testing hours will be posted on the city’s coronavirus website and the health department’s social media accounts.
Tests also will be available at the Baltimore Convention Center from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday.
Data in Baltimore continues to show that Black and Hispanic residents are becoming sick and Blacks are dying at disproportionate rates. Dzirasa said that is due, in part, to historic racism, the community’s mistrust of health systems and a combination societal and environmental factors
Another factor, she said, is “fault lines in the economy.” For example, she said, “we know our Black and brown communities are less likely to have jobs that allow them to telework, more likely to have jobs that are considered essential and less likely to be able to safely isolate at home due to crowded, blended or multi-generational households.”
Dzirasa said people who cannot quarantine at home may be able to receive free room and board at the Lord Baltimore Hotel’s “triage, respite and isolation” site. People can call 443-984-8915 to see if they qualify.
Baltimore’s online coronavirus dashboard shows 64% of deaths in the city have been Black people compared to 19% white. The race for 12% of the deaths in Baltimore is unknown.
Wearing face coverings, social distancing and avoiding crowds continue to be among the most important measures people can take to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
The Pimlico Race Course drive-thru testing site opened April 10. It’s located in Northwest Baltimore in the hard-hit 21215 ZIP code. As of Thursday, the ZIP had 885 cases. About four in five residents are Black in the 21215 ZIP code.
The city’s ZIP code with the highest concentration of positive cases is 21224 in Southeast Baltimore with 1,293 cases. The diverse Zip code is 57% white, 19% Hispanic and 16% Black, according to CensusReporter.com.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.