As April began, Harford County had the worst COVID-19 positive test rate in Maryland and one of its highest average new case rates. As the month comes to a close, those metrics have been halved, something the county’s top health official attributes to improved behaviors and more people being vaccinated.
“People did notice that there was a lot of circulating virus based on how public these data are and they rationally curtailed their risky behavior, just as has happened many times before,” Harford County Health Officer David Bishai said. “Also, we are at a point where there are enough vaccinated people to break chains of transmission.”
As of Thursday, Harford County’s positivity rate was 4.71%, down significantly from when it peaked April 2 at 10.16%, at the time the highest rate among Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions and nearly double the state average of 5.82%. The current rate is still higher than Thursday’s statewide average of 3.77%, but represents a significant improvement.
The average new case rate is also down; Harford’s 15.77 cases per 100,000 nearly mirrors the statewide rate of 15.28 cases reported Thursday. Again, that’s about half of the new cases that were being reported in the county during the first two weeks of April, when the rate hovered around the low- to mid-30s.
Bishai said as long as people stick to the new mask guidance and don’t go beyond it, there shouldn’t be another spike in COVID-19 cases because of the change.
“I am only afraid that people will take off masks in closed off areas of outdoors where there is not much ventilation,” he said. “Outdoors is safe when breezes flow to break up the expelled aerosols coming from an asymptomatic person’s mouth and nose.”
About 50% of Harford County residents are vaccinated, Bishai said Thursday. While still far from herd immunity in the county, “we are at a point where transmission rates will be lower than the winter,” he said.
“Unless we do get up above 70% vaccinated, our future will be one where we can never be fully at ease,” he said.
In pockets of the county where vaccine coverage remains low, like Edgewood and the Whiteford area, cases of COVID can still become super-spreaders, Bishai said.
County health department data shows 25,000 Harford residents received their first dose of the vaccine in the last seven days ending April 28.
According to Bishai, for the first time since the vaccine became available in January, the percentage of black Harford residents vaccinated in the last week exceeded the percentage of white residents. That’s significant as the county continues to address racial inequities in getting people vaccinated.
The Edgewood and Aberdeen ZIP codes have the greatest number of non-white residents in Harford, about 57% and 41%, respectively.
As of April 25, about 37% of people in that ZIP code have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, according to the county health department’s website, including 2,362 in the seven days before that data was reported.
That hasn’t been the case in Edgewood, where the county health department has a clinic three days a week at the Woodbridge shopping center off Route 40.
Again, Bishai did not provide specifics, but the department’s website shows 30% of the 21040 ZIP code has been vaccinated, including 2,005 people in the seven days ending April 25.
Appointments for the Edgewood clinic, as well as a Wednesday clinic at St. Ignatius in Forest Hill, can be made on the health department’s website.
Vaccine resistance in northern Harford
Northern Harford County also remains a large pocket where people who have not been vaccinated. Bishai estimated there are about 4,500 unvaccinated adults living in the 21132, 21160 and 21161 ZIP codes in the northernmost portion of the county.
The health department has a vaccine hesitancy survey that it hopes will provide them with more information, according to Ronya Nassar, a Health Policy Analyst for the agency. The results of that survey are expected to be ready sometime next week.
“There are still plausible alternative explanations, including crossing into Pennsylvania to get vaccinated,” she said.
Bishai warned that a ZIP code-sized outbreak in the fall could put a wrench in plans for in-person schooling, and getting vaccinated is the best thing adults can do to keep schools open in those pockets of the county.
“This concentrated vulnerability is exactly what a late fall COVID-19 virus needs to get a beachhead and re-establish itself if an imported case comes down from Pennsylvania or gets carried back to the county in the nose of someone who has just had a great summer vacation,” he said.
FEMA pop-up clinics in rural areas of the county last month were able to administer about a hundred or so shots a day, he said, and the health department is working with Harford Citizens Crush COVID and other community organizers in hopes of having additional pop-up clinics in those areas once residents there begin to populate waiting lists.
“Our staff is ready to pop-up again with shots as soon as we get wind of some ready and willing arms,” Bishai said.
But geography might not be the only challenge to reaching those residents. Harford, and particularly the northern part of the county, tends to lean Republican and conservative, and there is a vocal group that have railed against vaccines as unsafe.
Bishai, however, said that research focus groups have concluded conservatives who have questions about vaccines trust their own doctors. As such, he’s written the county’s medical community to thank them for doing all they can to answer their patients’ questions and asking them to reach out and to hear concerns and offer scientific recommendations based on that doctor-patient relationship.
“I want every health provider in the county to call their unvaccinated patients and listen to their questions,” he said. “At this moment in the county there is no health and lifestyle advice that can do more to save a life from age 20 to 99 than to hear a doctor recommend a call to 855-MD-GOVAX.”