Maryland state education officials cited improving metrics Thursday in saying high school sports can resume next month, although it wasn’t clear if the state’s two largest districts, both suburbs of D.C., would move forward with the plan.
Before the high school sports announcement, Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) had said test positivity, infection and daily case rates remain too stubbornly high to lift restrictions. The county has led Maryland in the number of reported coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic.
“These are key metrics that we believe must come down before we are comfortable moving to the next phase,” Alsobrooks said. “We will continue to monitor all the numbers and look forward to making announcements in the very near future.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) earlier this month advanced the state to the third phase of reopening. The move allows movie theaters and entertainment venues to reopen at 50 percent capacity, with a limit of 250 people, while retail establishments and religious services can increase to 75 percent capacity.
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, which generally have lifted restrictions at a slower pace than other parts of the state, have opted out. Officials from both counties have reiterated that position this week.
“We don’t have expendable life here,” Alsobrooks said of her decision to move more slowly. “The decisions we make are designed to protect your life and your livelihood.”
One opening Alsobrooks did announce Thursday was the county’s animal shelter, which will have strict social distancing measures in place as it begins adoptions.
Prince George’s Health Officer Ernest L. Carter said the county’s positivity rate is near 4 percent but has not consistently stayed below 5 percent in recent weeks. He said the county’s infection rate — measuring, on average, how many people are infected by each person who tests positive — is 1.05, up from 0.7 in June. Carter said his goal is to keep the rate below 0.9.
“This is a long haul,” he said.
Carter said one bright spot is that the county’s hospitals have not seen a spike in patients, with 60 percent of intensive care unit space available. He encouraged residents to get flu shots to help keep the hospital system from becoming overburdened.
Hogan also discussed vaccinations Thursday, saying the state is developing a detailed plan to obtain and distribute a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available. The first doses will go to nursing homes, eldercare facilities and essential front-line workers in the fields of health, public safety and education.
“Following CDC guidelines, this plan will immediately make the vaccine available to Marylanders who are most at risk,” Hogan said after a tour of Novavax in Gaithersburg, a biotechnology company that has three vaccine candidates in Phase 2 clinical trials.
He did not offer an estimate for when a vaccine might be ready.
The rolling seven-day average of new coronavirus infections Thursday in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. dropped to 1,376 — a number not seen in the region for more than two months. After weeks of generally ranging between 1,500 and 1,700, daily caseloads have ticked downward in recent days to mid-July levels. The seven-day average caseload stood at 1,680 one week ago and has declined each day since.
Eric Toner, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the Mid-Atlantic region has “consistently been managing the epidemic reasonably well,” which has contributed to the recent decline.
“We never saw the huge spike in cases like New York or the spikes in the summer that the Sun Belt areas had,” he said.
He credited governors in Virginia and Maryland, as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), with being “proactive and reactive” in dealing with the pandemic from the beginning, saying the messaging on public health measures has been consistent on the local level.
The arrival of colder weather poses a threat as people spend more time indoors, which increases the risk of the virus spreading, Toner said. But for now, he said the Washington region is seeing cases at a “steady, low rate.”
“Hospitals are not overwhelmed and we’re starting to see elective surgeries return,” he said. “This is what success looks like in a pandemic.”
Improving metrics led Maryland state school officials to allow high school sports next month.
Fall sports can begin practicing Oct. 7 and games can start Oct. 27, Maryland Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon said Thursday. Salmon, who joined Hogan after a school tour in Frederick County, said state school leaders “have heard loudly and clearly” from parents who want the fall season to begin.
“High school sports and competition are deeply rooted in the fabric of our schools and communities,” she said. “The steps taken today are directly related to the need of our students to be active and engaged for their physical, social and emotional well-being.”
Salmon said high schools can begin practice for cross-country, field hockey, football, golf, soccer and volleyball on Oct. 7, while golf competitions can begin the same day. The season will run through Dec. 12, with tournaments Dec. 14 to Dec. 19.
She said local school districts will decide whether to permit high school sports, based on each county’s coronavirus metrics, but she encouraged them to allow athletes to begin conditioning.
“The thing most concerning about our student-athletes is if we wait to do conditioning, say in February, they will be out of conditioning and practicing for almost an entire calendar year,” she said.
Montgomery County officials said in a statement Thursday that they would continue with the district’s current plan and review the state’s action in collaboration with county health officials. School leaders in Prince George’s County, which has plans for remote instruction through the end of January, had no comment Thursday on the high school sports announcement, a spokeswoman said.
State Sen. Paul D. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said he was “a bit surprised” by the move to resume high school sports, “since most of the 24 school systems have not felt it safe enough to return large numbers of students to in-person instruction.”
Pinsky said too many questions are unanswered, including whether testing will be required to participate and if counties that opt in will be provided with rapid tests. He noted that college and professional teams have used testing to keep the virus at bay and have suspended or postponed games when tests come back positive.
In making the announcement, Hogan — who has called for school districts to provide some in-person instruction — cited improving health metricsin urging schools to take steps toward returning students to classrooms and athletes to the field.
“We’re not going to do anything to endanger our kids but we think it’s really important to try to make efforts to get more of them back into face-to-face instruction and give them the opportunity to have some of the sports activity that they also need,” he said.
D.C., Maryland and Virginia on Thursday reported 1,461 new daily infections and 31 deaths. Virginia had 902 new cases and 24 deaths; Maryland had 503 new cases and seven deaths; D.C. had 56 new cases and no deaths. Virginia health officials attributed 18 of the state’s deaths to a backlog in reported fatalities announced last week.
The region on Wednesday reported fewer than 1,000 daily cases for the first time since July 6. D.C. continues to have the lowest rate of infections in the region, with a rolling average of 46 infections per 100,000 residents over seven days. That number stood at 55 in Maryland and 72 in Virginia.
The pandemic continues to take an economic toll in the region, as 24,130 residents of Virginia, Maryland and D.C. filed for unemployment benefits for the week ending Sept. 19. That’s up from the 19,418 who filed a week earlier.
Labor Department figures released Thursday show 10,234 Marylanders filed new unemployment claims, 12,492 claims were filed in Virginia and 1,404 were filed in D.C.
Erin Cox, Donna St. George and Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.