A variety of high-risk gatherings are behind the recent spike in coronavirus cases in Harford County, according to a county Health Department spokesperson, who said health officials are in constant contact with county leaders about what actions can be taken to slow or limit the spread.
Harford County’s average new COVID-19 case rate spiked Monday to its highest levels since tracking began in March, mirroring statewide trends.
The Maryland Department of Health reported the 10th straight day of rising new case rates in Harford, with a seven-day average of 19.57 cases per 100,000 people Monday.
The county’s COVID-19 positivity rate, which has been steadily climbing for nearly two weeks, was 6.34% Monday, the highest its been since June.
On June 1, the positivity rate was 6.48%, but was on the decline. That was the last time Harford’s rate exceeded the 5% threshold, according to state data, until Nov. 5, when it hit 5.05%. The positivity rate in the county has been rising each day since Oct. 27, when it was at 2.85%.
The new case rate has also spiked since about the same time. On Oct. 29, the average number of new cases in the county was 7.27 per 100,000.
Nearly 900 Harford residents have contracted COVID-19 in the past month, according to state data, and at least eight have died from the respiratory virus. As of Monday, there were 4,130 confirmed cases and 80 reported deaths in Harford since the pandemic began.
Molly Mraz, the Public Information Officer for the Harford County Health Department, said recent contact tracing has linked the rise in cases primarily to family gatherings, as well as religious services, house parties, outdoor events, other large gatherings, dinner parties, funerals, weddings and sporting events.
“Harford County is very consistent with what the governor mentioned last week about the state’s most common ‘culprits,’” she said.
The local message also mirrors that of Gov. Larry Hogan: Wear a mask, remember to social distance, avoid large gatherings and wash hands well.
“We don’t think that the community wants to go back to Phase 1, and the community has the power to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Mraz said.
County Executive Barry Glassman is not planning to enact or re-enact any restrictions on residents' activity, a spokesperson said.
“The county executive continues to closely monitor our metrics, including hospitalizations,” Cindy Mumby, the county’s director of Governmental and Community Relations, wrote in an email. “At this point we don’t have data pointing to any one particular activity as the cause, so there’s no change to restrictions at this time, but we are continuing our messaging for everyone to wear masks where required, maintain social distancing and wash hands for 20 seconds.”
There were 15 COVID-19 patients in Harford County’s two hospitals — Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace — as of Monday, Mumby said. Of those, eight were in critical care.
Harford County Public Schools announced Monday evening it would resume all-virtual learning on Friday as a result of the spike. Elementary school students and some others had been learning in-person under a once-a-week hybrid model for the past few weeks, and others had been in Learning Support Centers full time since the beginning of the school year.
The HCPS Continuity of Learning plan outlined that if the positivity rate exceeded 5% or the new case rate rose above 15, the school system would consider “more restrictive steps."
Glassman acknowledged last week when Harford’s positivity rate exceeded 5% for the first time in months, that he expected the numbers to go up as fall began. Research suggests colder weather in the fall and winter might allow the virus to spread more easily. He attributed the spike to so-called “COVID fatigue.”
“That’s why we keeping trying to hammer [wearing] the mask, handwashing and social distancing,” he said. “The more we can just keep people not to let their guard down, it’ll help to some extent.”
Gov. Larry Hogan made a similar statement last week, warning the coming months may be “our worst time.” Like Glassman, the governor also stopped short of imposing new restrictions or tightening existing ones, instead encouraging residents to “wear the damn masks.”
Harford is has been running an awareness campaign, including advertisements that have been airing on WBAL-TV and some area radio stations with Glassman reminding people about those three steps that have helped to manage the pandemic. Mumby said last week the county had spent about $295,000 on those advertisements, paid for through the public safety portion of the nearly $45 million in federal CARES Act funding Harford received.
A robo-call was expected to go out to Harford County residents Monday evening, warning of the rising metrics and reminding them about steps they can take to prevent the spread, Mumby said.
Mraz, of the Harford Health Department, offered a reminder to community members that just because restaurants and businesses are open to the public, that does not mean they have to visit those places.
“There are other options that can still support local businesses like online shopping, food delivery, or take-out,” she said. “We know and understand that businesses are doing everything they can to make sure they are safely operating. However; they would not be able to detect if a patron is COVID positive.”
Anyone who has tested positive should stay home. If you think you’ve come in contact with someone who has tested positive, or have attended a large gathering, Mraz said the Health Department recommends getting tested and staying home until results are received.
“Also, remember that it could take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear,” she said. “Just because you’re on day 13 with no symptoms doesn’t mean you can’t and won’t wake up on day 14 with a fever.”