Md. COVID cases rise following easing of restrictions, despite growth in vaccinations

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Maryland’s COVID-19 metrics have risen considerably in the two weeks since Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) eased restrictions on business activity and social gatherings.

The number of new infections has more than doubled since March 9, the day the governor gave the go-ahead, zooming from 631 new cases the day of his news conference to 1,335 on Sunday, a 112% increase.

The state Department of Health reported on Sunday that there are COVID 970 patients in Maryland hospitals, up from 765 the day restrictions were lifted, an increase of nearly 27%.

And 19 of 23 counties — and Baltimore City — have positivity rates that are higher than they were nearly three weeks ago. More than half of Maryland’s counties have rates above 5%; on March 9, only one county — Charles — was above 5%.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan said much of the increase — particularly in the Baltimore metropolitan region — can be traced to the travel-induced spread of the various COVID-19 variants that have popped up.

“I think we do need to be concerned about the variants,” said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) on Friday, “because what the evidence has shown is that these variants can be more contagious, and they’re more easily spread within the community.”

“We’re at a critical inflection point right now,” added Lam, a public health physician.

Speaking on WAMU-FM’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” the lawmaker noted that the state’s infection rate is climbing despite the increase in vaccinations, “which means, potentially, some of these variants are actually gaining traction within our community.”

Hogan lifted capacity limits on restaurants — both indoor and outdoor dining — with the caveat that tables be spaced at least six feet apart, effective March 12.

It also removed limits on retail businesses, religious facilities, casinos, fitness centers, hair and nail salons, and indoor recreational establishments — including bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls and skating rinks.

Social clubs also got the all-clear, subject to masking and distancing requirements.

Large facilities — including stadiums and race tracks, conference centers and convention halls, concert sites, wedding and banquet spaces, theaters and ballrooms — were allowed to open at 50% capacity.

Unlike some governors who lifted restrictions this month, Hogan ordered that mask orders and distancing requirements remain in place, something health experts have urged.

Business organizations cheered the governor’s action, and several counties moved to align themselves quickly with the state, though others took more limited steps.

But a leading health expert called the decision to reopen “premature.”

In a March 10 interview with Maryland Matters, Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it would have been wiser to wait until the state’s vaccination program was further along and more is known about COVID-19 variants.

“There’s still a fair amount of virus in Maryland,” he said. “We’re so close to getting a huge surge of vaccinations in this state and in this country. I think it’s better to go step-by-step, rather than one gigantic leap.”

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), the head of the state’s largest subdivision, called Hogan’s decision “a serious mistake” and predicted it “will trigger another spike” in infections.

The state’s 7-day positivity rate is up 32% from March 9. The rate, which stood at 3.6%, was 4.7% on Sunday. Harford, Anne Arundel and Washington counties, which have largely followed the state’s easing of restrictions, are well above 6%.

When Hogan issued his order, the state’s numbers were falling, but he conceded that lifting restrictions was not risk-free.

“The virus can mutate. Things can change,” he told reporters. But “we believe it’s the right time … And it’s time to get our economy going.”

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis A. Gayles said on Friday that the increase in cases and hospitalizations isn’t getting the attention it should.

“Magically, no one is talking about it from the state perspective,” he told Maryland Matters. “All of these [increases] have happened following the decision to open up more stuff.”

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