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Virus cases, hospitalizations trend up in Maryland; Norfolk to get FEMA vaccine clinic

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) lifted capacity limits on indoor and oudoor dining, retail businesses, fitness centers and religious establishments.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) lifted capacity limits on indoor and oudoor dining, retail businesses, fitness centers and religious establishments. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Coronavirus cases in Maryland have ticked back upward in recent weeks, with the state on Friday reporting its highest seven-day average for new daily cases since Feb. 13.

The increase has prompted warnings from public health experts who say it is too soon for members of the public to let their guard down, despite a growing number of vaccinated residents and a recent loosening of capacity restrictions.

Hospitalizations and the statewide positivity rate are also trending higher in Maryland, with 4.64 percent of tests coming back positive as of Friday — up from a recent low of 3.28 percent on March 3.

A 5 percent positivity rate could signal that not enough testing is happening and that new cases are likely going undetected, said Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“We are not past this,” Sehgal said. “We are almost out of the woods, but we are not out yet.”

Maryland’s seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 people is 17.6 — higher than Virginia’ 16.53 and the District’s 16.01, according to The Washington Post’s tracker.

Virginia’s seven-day average for new cases has grown as well, but not as much as in Maryland. D.C.’s seven-day average has increased slightly in recent days but is still lower than at the beginning of March. Hospitalizations and positivity rates in both D.C. and Virginia are relatively steady.

Pandemic fatigue and spring weather are changing our virus mentality

Sehgal said that because borders in the Washington region are porous, it is likely that Virginia and D.C. will soon see an uptick in cases similar to Maryland’s. He attributed the rise in cases in the state to new coronavirus variants, changes in behavior by residents tired of the pandemic and Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision earlier this month to lift capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining, retail businesses, fitness centers and religious establishments.

“All that reopening does is, it validates the people who said this wasn’t a big deal before,” Sehgal said.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said in a statement that “the governor and our health experts have said that we are in a race between the vaccines and the variants. We must remain cautious and vigilant so that vaccines prevail.”

Through contact tracing, Ricci said, officials have found an increase in cases connected to travel outside the state. He said the state “continues to aggressively address outbreaks wherever they occur.”

Acting Maryland health secretary Dennis Schrader told state lawmakers earlier this week that he would wait until Friday, a full two weeks after the March 12 reopening, to evaluate any potential impacts.

There are 933 people hospitalized in Maryland because of the coronavirus, according to state data, up from a low of 767 in the first week of March but less than half the January peak of 1,962.

Bob Atlas, president of the Maryland Hospital Association, said that in a sign vaccination efforts are working, the number of hospitalized senior citizens has declined in recent weeks. Now, he said, the biggest age group getting hospitalized is people ages 45 to 64. He speculated that some of those people may have stopped wearing masks and taking other precautions even though they were still vulnerable to the virus.

“People in a way got ahead of the vaccines,” Atlas said. “They said, ‘There are vaccines here, and I’m itching to get out of the house,’ so people started letting their guards down, even though they weren’t vaccinated.”

D.C.’s vaccine disparities are as big as ever. Here’s why poor Black areas are so far behind.

As of Friday, about 25 percent of Maryland residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine, state data shows. So far, 13.6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In Virginia, 26.1 percent of the population has received at least one dose and 14.2 percent were fully vaccinated, according state data. D.C., which has had to vaccinate a large number of essential and health-care workers from out of state, reports that 16.4 percent of residents have received at least one dose and 7.6 percent are fully vaccinated.

Despite the increased number of hospitalizations in Maryland, deaths have remained relatively low, with a seven-day average of 14 new daily deaths as of Friday.

“We’re not having an issue with our nursing homes anymore,” Hogan (R) said at a news conference earlier this week, noting an increase in younger people being hospitalized with what appears to be a more virulent strain of the virus. “We had kids at the Naval Academy that were much sicker than last time and having these intestinal issues rather than respiratory issues.”

David Marcozzi, senior medical adviser to Hogan on covid-19, recommended that anyone experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, especially children and younger adults, get tested for the coronavirus.

“It is spreading more easily between us and making us sicker,” he said.

In Virginia, public health officials said Friday they will shift vaccines to Northern Virginia and other regions with a high concentration of people and the longest wait lists because there has been less demand than anticipated in rural areas.

“Residents in rural communities are more hesitant,” said Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, adding that data shows Republicans have a lower vaccine uptake rate than Democrats.

Avula said he did not yet have exact numbers of how many doses would be reallocated to Northern Virginia. The state’s allotment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week will total 49,000, which is about 100,000 fewer doses than expected, he said. But total Pfizer doses will jump to 252,000, which is more than state officials expected. Virginia will also receive 154,000 Moderna doses.

About 20 to 30 percent of the increase in doses will be reallocated to Northern Virginia, Avula told reporters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will set up a mass vaccination clinic in Norfolk, as part of a larger program to vaccinate minorities and other vulnerable populations that Jeff Zients, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, announced Friday.

Avula said the site will open Wednesday and be built to administer 18,000 doses weekly. At first it will be limited to people in Phase 1B, which includes those over 65 and people 16 to 64 with a wide range of underlying medical conditions.

Officials will ensure Black and Latino populations are prioritized by allocating vaccine to specific community groups. For example, a network of churches may receive a portion of the appointments for their parishioners, he said.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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