Maryland is increasing its screening and genetic sequencing of coronavirus test results to look for the presence of more-contagious variants that appear to already be circulating around the state.
In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state has signed agreements with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University that will double the state’s overall capacity to perform sequencing, which refers to examining the genetic structure of the virus.
“This enhanced capacity will enable us to screen and sequence over 10% of all COVID-19 cases, giving Maryland one of the strongest surveillance programs in America,” Hogan said.
Different virus strains have emerged in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil — and all three have been identified in Maryland. The strains appear to be more transmissible, although they do not appear to lead to more severe illness or to be more deadly, health officials said.
So far, the state has identified about 60 cases involving variants, with the majority being the strain first identified in the U.K., said the state’s deputy health secretary, Dr. Jinlene Chan. Previously, the state had only publicly identified a handful of cases involving the variants.
Chan said the expanded screening capacity means the state will go from doing 300 sequencings a week to more than 700.
“We anticipate that as we do more sequencing, we will identify more cases,” she said.
Citing data collected from contact-tracing efforts, Chan said that most of the variant cases identified so far do not involve patients with recent travel histories.
“What that indicates to us is there is ongoing community transmission already happening here in the state,” Chan said. “And so again, it’s now more important than ever that we wear a mask, that we practice social distancing and that we avoid large gatherings to try to prevent the ongoing transmission of variant cases.”
Nationwide, there have been about 1,600 documented cases involving variants, Chan said.
There have been some studies indicating that the currently approved vaccines may not be as protective against the new strains, Chan said. “But more study is clearly needed,” she added.
Doctors should contact local health departments if they identify a person who tests positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated or who has become reinfected with COVID-19, Chan said.
Some cases, she said, are able to be identified during regular coronavirus testing labwork.
“There are some signals that the laboratory professionals can identify even during the PCR test that that might be a clue that the individual has a COVID variant of concern,” she said.
Hogan remains concerned about the coronavirus variants, even as the state’s case numbers have dramatically improved over the past several weeks.
In the past seven weeks, the state’s positivity rate has dropped down to 3.9% — the lowest since Oct. 31.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations have also declined each week for the last six weeks — from nearly 2,000 a month ago to 978 on Tuesday.
“Our metrics could not be going any better,” Hogan said, adding, “what we don’t want to do is have everybody get complacent and have these crazy variants out there.”
Charles Co. to get next mass vaccine site
Hogan also announced plans to open the state’s fourth mass vaccination site at the Southern Maryland Blue Crab Stadium in Charles County in the next few weeks.
The site, which will be supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will have the capacity to perform thousands of vaccinations a day as the limited federal supply of doses increases.
A third mass vaccination clinic at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore is set to get up and running Thursday. At full capacity, the 55,000-square-foot mass vaccination site will be staffed by 300 personnel, including those giving the shots, pharmacists, nurses and nurse practitioners.
The first 10,000 appointments have already been scheduled, Hogan said.
By next week, the location will be administering 2,000 shots per day, “with the capacity to do thousands more per day,” Hogan said.
The state’s first mass vaccination site opened earlier this month at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County.
And earlier this week, the state’s acting health secretary announced plans for a single registration site for all of the state’s mass vaccination clinic locations.
Hogan also discussed the vaccine supply shortage, which could be improved by an emergency-use authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine as early as this week.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine — unlike the vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna that are currently available — requires only a single shot and is produced at Emergent BioSolutions in East Baltimore.
If the vaccine is authorized, the federal government would be able to ship doses to the state as early as next week, Hogan said the Biden administration has told governors. The company has said it has about 2 million vaccine doses ready to be shipped to the states immediately and has pledged to ramp up production to 20 million total doses by the end of March.
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