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Maryland jurisdictions want to roll back reopening

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The top health officers in Maryland's most-populous jurisdictions - including Montgomery and Prince George's counties - asked the state on Monday to reconsider what activities it permits amid the novel coronavirus pandemic as experts across the Washington region urged caution while watching virus cases rise in recent weeks.



The health officers said their respective jurisdictions are weighing "a range of revisions," including restrictions on gathering sizes, mandating face coverings for indoor and outdoor activities, and stopping indoor service at restaurants and bars. 

The email was sent to Deputy Secretary of Health Fran Phillips and signed by the health officers in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City. 

"Our jurisdictions are prepared to act quickly to address these concerns but would prefer for the state to take action to create a unified, standardized approach to address this resurgence of cases," they wrote. 

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said in a statement that the state looks "closely at the data every day with public health experts" and will continue to emphasize caution. 

"We have stressed to local health officers the importance of enforcing the public health orders currently in place, particularly at bars and restaurants," Ricci said. "We cannot allow a small segment of bad actors to squander the sacrifices that Marylanders have made. But as the governor has said, if necessary, he is prepared to take action."

The seven-day average of coronavirus cases in the greater Washington region has nearly doubled in the past month. It stood at 1,760 on Monday after climbing steadily from a low of 907 cases. 

On Sunday, Maryland reported 925 new cases, the highest number since late May, when there were more than 1,000 new cases reported daily. Virus-related hospitalizations have also started showing slight upticks. 

The state's six largest jurisdictions have all seen a rebound in new infections in recent days, with Howard and Anne Arundel showing the most dramatic increases. In Howard, the seven-day average in new cases has jumped from five in mid-June to about 40, rivaling the figures that were reported at the peak of the crisis in May and June. In Anne Arundel, the seven-day average has jumped from just above 20 in late June to more than 60 this weekend.

The letter from the Maryland health officials came on the same day the District of Columbia's top health official released data showing that the city is nowhere near putting a lid on community transmission of a virus that has increased its rate of spread across the region. 

The D.C. Health Department published a key metric for the first time Monday and revealed that the number is dismal: The percentage of new coronavirus cases linked to already known cases is 2.8%.

The city's goal is 60%, which would indicate that the nation's capital is capable of tracking the spread of the virus and that cases are closely linked. For now, the tiny percentage indicates that the virus is still spreading widely in the community without contact tracers being able to tell enough close contacts of sick people to quarantine as they are exposed.

The small number means most people contracting the virus are not aware of contacts with someone who had it.

LaQuandra Nesbitt, the city's health director, said D.C. will consider bringing back some restrictions on business or social activities to try to reduce the community spread. She chastised residents for socializing too much in private homes and going to the grocery store daily instead of occasionally.

"It's not good," Luisa Franzini, a professor and chairwoman of the Health Services Administration department at the University of Maryland's school of public health, said of the rising caseloads. "As we reopen and people go out and about more and meet other people and do things without being careful in wearing masks, avoiding being indoors and social distancing, we expected the cases would go up, and that's what we're seeing."

She said leaders in the Washington region should consider prohibiting indoor seating at restaurants again, as well as reclosing gyms, nail salons, barbershops and other places where people are in close contact indoors. Much of the spread is linked to human behavior, she said. 

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said creating a safe environment for schools to reopen in the fall should take precedence over allowing bars to remain open.

"Maybe we should determine that these types of settings should not be open in the meantime in order to keep the level of infection relatively low so that school can open," said Wen, who previously was Baltimore City's health commissioner. "If we as a society say our priority is, say, reopening schools in August, then we need to be reimposing some of these measures."

As health officials urged caution, the region was moving ahead with a gradual reopening likely to bring more people into contact with one another. 

The Smithsonian announced Monday that the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia will welcome visitors Friday, marking the first time the public can visit the world's largest museum complex since it closed March 14. Other Smithsonian sites remain shuttered, with reopening dates not yet announced.

The Smithsonian is releasing 5,000 daily passes for the zoo and 1,500 for Udvar-Hazy, which can be reserved by phone or visiting the Smithsonian's website. 

Metro announced that it will increase transit service significantly next month, from historic lows to at least 70% of what service had been before the pandemic. 

While some organizations took steps toward normalcy, others said the pandemic forced them into the opposite direction. 

Organizers canceled the Marine Corps Marathon for the first time in its 45-year history. Race director Rick Nealis said the decision was made Friday by Marine Corps Commandant David Berger after it became clear that key logistics could not be nailed down until uncomfortably close to race day, Oct. 25. 

D.C. officials in a Monday news conference discussed the lengthening time it is taking some residents to receive coronavirus test results. They said that hospitalized patients are getting results within a day and that nursing home residents with tests processed by the city's public health lab are learning results within two days. 

Commercial labs are taking much longer, in some cases seven to 10 days.

"It speaks to the need for national leadership. We can collect samples. We've pretty much gotten that down. But we need the labs to complete the test," said Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat. "We can't have our national leadership throwing up their hands."

Nesbitt said that if the testing backlog gets much worse, the city might have to return to encouraging testing only for high-priority populations. "At this point, we have the capacity to provide a test for anyone who needs a test," she said.

The city closed its public testing sites Monday because of the heat - the sites are outdoors - and will operate with shortened hours on Tuesday and Wednesday. Nesbitt said that while the city will undoubtedly test fewer people on these days (public testing sites account for 40% of D.C.'s daily tests) and she has "some concerns" about the virus's spread with fewer tests, private doctors' offices could do more tests and absorb some of the demand. 



Published : July 21, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Ovetta Wiggins, Rachel Chason, Dana Hedgpeth, Julie Zauzmer · NATIONAL, HEALTH