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Harford’s COVID-positive test rate worst in Maryland; county health officer says keep wearing masks, distancing

Harford County has the highest COVID-19 positivity rate of any jurisdiction in Maryland as the month of March comes to a close, prompting the county’s health officer to issue a reminder that residents need to be better at mask wearing and social distancing.

“We’re now back up to the levels we were seeing in January and all of the progress we made at the beginning of March ... has been undone,” Dr. David Bishai said in a video he posted to YouTube on Tuesday.

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“People in the county need to know that there is a lot of circulating virus in our county; as bad as it was back in the worst of the winter is where we are approaching in these next few days so we have to be on guard,” he said. “We’re not vaccinated enough to keep this amount of coronavirus from really doing damage to young and healthy people that have not yet been vaccinated.”

More than 500 new COVID-19 cases have been reported in Harford County over the past week and key metrics are nearing the levels they did in the fall. According to the latest data reported Tuesday morning by the Maryland Department of Health, Harford’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests is 8.9% — the highest in Maryland — versus the statewide rate of 5.24%.

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That’s the highest the county’s positivity rate has been since mid-November, when it peaked at 9.88%, and more than double the 4.1% reported on March 1, which is the lowest it had been in the county since the end of October.

Likewise, the seven-day moving average case rate stood at 29.58 new cases per 100,000 people on Tuesday. That’s not as bad as the three-month stretch from November to January, when those figures were routinely in the 30s and 40s, but up significantly from the 10.56 new cases per 100,000 reported March 3, the lowest that figure had been since before Halloween.

Hospitalizations for COVID in Harford County are also up in recent weeks, from 35 on March 16 to 56 as of Tuesday, according to Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for Harford County Government.

The problem is being driven by people ages 20 to 50 — working adults and parents of school-age children, Bishai said in the video. The more recent spike could be attributed to mid-March social events, like St. Patrick’s Day, and increased case-finding in schools, but the issue goes back to the fall and a lackluster recovery in January, he said.

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“We really didn’t take benefit of getting back into hunkering down, we halfheartedly got back into good behaviors of wearing face masks and refraining from indoor social activities,” he said.

Harford’s metrics weren’t dissimilar from other large counties back in October, but after Halloween and into Thanksgiving and Christmas, the county’s positivity rate rose to the second-highest in Maryland and never got back on track as rates dropped precipitously elsewhere, Bishai said.

“We really kind of hit a wall, getting back to our good behaviors after the holidays,“ he said. “We got a little bit better, then kind of petered out.”

Holidays have become a trigger for spreader events, Bishai said, noting a trend that has seemed to develop in Harford in which there has been a spike after each holiday since the fall. Because the virus is circulating in the community at a higher rate, it makes upcoming Easter gatherings and spring break activities “a lot less safe than they would’ve been,” Bishai said.

The Harford County Health Department has started a social media campaign around Easter to encourage families to hold gatherings outdoors with face coverings, social distancing, plenty of hand sanitizer and separate eating utensils.

Even though case numbers are rising, Bishai is not calling for any additional local restrictions. Instead, he wants to reemphasize education efforts to businesses like gyms, bars and restaurants, and remind them they need to follow state protocols to keep their customers safe.

“The current set of behaviors recommended by the governor is adequate if we live up to it,” he said.

While more people are getting vaccinated — approximately 31% of Harford’s residents have received their first dose and 77% of seniors have been inoculated — Bishai said vaccines alone aren’t enough to keep people healthy and alive, even young people with no other health ailments.

“COVID does kill young, healthy people in their 20s, 30s and 40s with no preexisting conditions,” he said. “If we keep on getting this many young people infected we’re going to see deaths of young, healthy people with full lives that could’ve been ahead of them. We have to keep up with the current measures.”

He warned that for unvaccinated people in the 40 to 50 age group, COVID increases their chance of dying by 40% this year.

Bishai said he doesn’t think the 20- to 50-year-old adults getting COVID are letting their guard down because they’ve been vaccinated, because there’s very little vaccine coverage among those age groups. Rather, he thinks there are many cues such as warmer weather and children returning to school that have made them think it’s OK to get back to “normal.”

About 10 to 15 deaths are being reported each day statewide, although Harford has not had a fatal COVID case since March 20, according to state data. Improved following of the regulations, combined with increased vaccination efforts, could bring the statewide death rate to one or two per day by mid-July, Bishai said.

However, if people start treating the pandemic like it’s over, giving up on mask-wearing and social distancing, “we’d be stuck with this number of deaths every day, hospitals would stay just as full, ICUs would stay just as full if we let go of our good behaviors now, which is why it’s so alarming to see this test positivity rate surge back up right now.”

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