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As COVID-19 variants pick up the pace, here’s how to stay safe while you await vaccination | COMMENTARY

Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md., after Gov. Larry Hogan, standing left, announced he would be a senior adviser for public health and advise Maryland officials on the state's COVID-19 vaccine campaign and response to variants. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md., after Gov. Larry Hogan, standing left, announced he would be a senior adviser for public health and advise Maryland officials on the state's COVID-19 vaccine campaign and response to variants. (AP Photo/Brian Witte) (Brian Witte/AP)

On March 5, 2020, just a year ago, Maryland had its first case of COVID-19. Since then, the pandemic has taken a grim toll on Maryland with over 7,600 confirmed deaths and tens of thousands of people needing to be hospitalized, many of whom will face unknown long-term consequences. While the pandemic has affected all of us, some groups have been hit harder with higher rates of infection and death, including racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly and the poor. We are losing whole generations of people while the virus causes further widening of gaps in life expectancy.

During the fall and winter, the statewide daily case rate rose from 10 in late October to a high of 53 in mid-January 2021. Hospitalizations and deaths rapidly increased during this time. In response, certain counties and the state put restrictions in place to control the spread of the virus. Many of these actions taken by jurisdictions were targeted to the metrics occurring at that time in their communities. Since mid-January, the case rate had been steadily coming down and by last week, had reached a low of 12.4. Those restrictions, and actions taken by our citizens, worked.

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The case rate leveled off last week and is now at 13.5 — and rising. While this is better than the fall and winter surge, we can’t be lulled into thinking we’re doing well and out of the woods. In fact, today, we are not better off numbers-wise than we were last fall, when rising numbers rightly raised concerns about rapid spread during the winter. Which is exactly what happened.

On the plus side, we’re through the worst of the cold weather, which made it easier for the virus to spread. Because people were wearing masks, washing hands, staying socially distanced and were not in large gatherings, we did not have the cases of flu we would have experienced in a normal winter. We have sufficient personal protective equipment. Vaccines are getting into arms with over 20% of our residents either partially or fully vaccinated, and more vaccine is coming.

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But it’s not all good news. The Centers for Disease Control just announced that nationwide approximately 10% of cases are due to variants, up from 1% to 4% just a few weeks ago. These variants spread faster than the regular version, which makes it very difficult to contain once it takes off. For the next few months, we will be in a race between how fast we can vaccinate our population versus how fast the variants spread.

Here is what we must do:

Keep current restrictions in place. This will slow the spread of the variants and is recommended by the CDC. Most importantly, our kids are just getting back into school, and this will give them a chance to succeed. Once we have kids and their families stabilized, we can take further steps where it makes sense to do so in our communities.

Prioritize vaccine equity. Black and Hispanic people are being vaccinated at lower rates. New approaches should be prioritized along with dedicated focus to equitably vaccinate communities that have been hit the hardest. The focus on speed and volume of vaccinations makes it more challenging to target those most vulnerable and hardest hit. Local health departments, who know their communities well, are utilizing a number of strategies and are working tirelessly to increase vaccinations in these communities and populations.

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Wear masks better. Wear your mask over your nose, mouth and chin. Makes sure it’s tight fitting. Double mask with a surgical mask and a cloth mask. And if you see someone wearing it incorrectly, gently remind them to pull their mask up.

Avoid gatherings. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Avoid gatherings or other settings that bring groups of people together.

Get tested. Fewer people are getting tested than just a month ago. The virus isn’t gone, so get tested if you have any symptoms or have been around others you aren’t usually around.

Get vaccinated when it’s your turn. Our currently available vaccines are highly effective, more effective in preventing death, illness and hospitalizations than we every expected. Pfizer and Moderna are more than 95% effective at preventing more than 95% of moderate to severe COVID-19 illness. The remaining 5% results in mild illness, which might make you uncomfortable for a little while, but will not kill you.

It’s been a long year and we’re not out of the woods yet. Let’s double down on our safety measures to slow the spread of the variant to give us enough time to get enough people vaccinated so we can start returning to the usual rhythms of life. We owe it to all of our fellow Marylanders we have lost to this virus to not allow it to continue to wreak havoc on our state.

Nilesh Kalyanaraman (Twitter: @nileshkal) is health officer for the Anne Arundel County Department of Health. Edwin F. Singer (ed.singer@maryland.gov) is health Officer of the Carroll County Health Department and president of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, which represents the health officers from all of Maryland’s 24 local jurisdictions. They write on behalf of MACHO and the state’s health officers.

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