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Younger people driving Harford’s COVID positivity rate to highest in Maryland amid fourth wave, health officer says

Young people between ages 15 and 60 have driven Harford County’s test positivity to the highest in the state, Harford County Health Officer David Bishai said, despite middle-of-the-pack testing in the county.

As of Wednesday, the positivity rating sat at 8.76% — the highest in the state, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health, although it was down from the 9.29% on Monday that Bishai reported at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting. The state average positivity rate was 5.69% Wednesday.

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The county’s 32.05 new cases per 100,000 people reported Wednesday is third behind Baltimore and Baltimore County; the statewide rate was 23.22 per 100,000.

The data represents the fourth wave of COVID-19 cases in Maryland and Harford County, Bishai said.

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In the past, citizens speaking during the public comment portions of council meetings have pointed to more testing in the county as the cause for higher test positivity ratings. Bishai said that was not the case — Harford is middle-of-the-road in testing its citizens. Rather, the fourth wave is being driven by younger people who are “engaging in behaviors that spread the virus,” he said.

Hospitalizations are up too, according to Colin Ward, senior vice president and chief operating officer for University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health. On March 6, the hospitals in Harford were treating around 19 COVID patients. As of Monday, they had 44 across the two hospitals in Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Ward encouraged citizens to get the vaccine and continue washing their hands, masking and social distancing.

“Harford County may be finished with COVID, but it is not finished with us,” he said.

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While hospitalizations are up, Bishai was happy to report that deaths were down, attributing that decline to the vaccination coverage rate among senior citizens — one of the county’s more vulnerable demographics. The county sees one COVID death about every week, he said. Most of the people hospitalized are those age 60 or younger who have not received a vaccine. Cases among the senior population of the county are lower by comparison during the fourth wave.

“Hospital admissions per day are quite high for Harford County, higher than most other counties because we are getting more COVID than other counties,” Bishai said.

Data presented to the council showed that the spike in cases began with the 15-24 age group, which is “leading” the epidemic, Bishai said. That age group began displaying more cases on March 19, with other age groups following shortly thereafter, he said. The spike in hospitalizations is concerning, he said, to both the health department and hospitals that cater to the county.

“I know that the people in the hospitals are worried that, if we don’t get this fourth wave turned around, we are going our lose our ability of our hospitals to stay open for anyone else who needs them,” Bishai said.

In late March, Harford County also had the highest positivity rate in the state at 8.9%. Then, problem was driven by people ages 20 to 50 — working adults and parents of school-age children, Bishai said in a video message. That 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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