Controversy over the rollout of the Maryland’s vaccine distribution effort has obscured a dramatic decline in the spread of the virus.
Although infections, hospitalizations and deaths spiked after the holidays — just as public health experts predicted — Maryland and the rest of the nation have seen a steady and significant drop in all three areas in the last few weeks:
- Maryland’s 7-day infection rate, which stood at 51.9 for every 100,000 people on Jan. 14, was 16.9 on Feb. 14.
- Deaths have dropped from an average of 53 per day on Dec. 18 to 12 per day on Feb. 14.
- Infections have plummeted from 3,792 per day on Dec. 4 to 722 on Feb. 15, an 81% drop.
- Hospitalizations, which peaked at 1,952 on Jan. 12, stood at 1,113 on Feb. 15.
- And Maryland’s rolling 7-day positivity rate dropped from 9.4% on Jan. 5 to 4.5% on Feb. 14, a decrease of just over 50%.
Nationally, the numbers are dropping as well, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Late last week, the country’s rate of new infections dropped below 100,000 per day for the first time since late October.
Despite the striking downturn, the CDC is warning Americans not to become complacent.
“Even with that progress, the daily numbers of new cases and deaths remain much higher than the first two peaks of the pandemic in the spring and summer of 2020,” officials cautioned.
Maryland officials — while buoyed by the improved metrics — are sounding similar themes.
“It’s not as though we have gotten to the point where we can relax at all,” said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Environmental Health Bureau.
Mitchell said there are “still many, many people who have not been exposed, not been infected and who have not been vaccinated — and those people are absolutely still at risk, will continue to be at risk, because the virus isn’t disappearing.”
The drop in infections is one reason state and local leaders are under growing pressure to bring children back for in-person instruction and allow restaurants to resume indoor dining.
Montgomery County officials allowed restaurants to open at 25% capacity starting last Sunday, with a 90-minute limit.
But Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) urged patrons to double-mask while inside restaurants.
“When you’re sitting at a table talking and not eating, you need to have a mask on,” he said. “It is simply not safe to be in a restaurant unmasked. It’s not safe for you and it’s not safe for the people around you. So please be careful.”
Mitchell said people who have not been vaccinated — the vast majority of the population — remain at “significant risk” and need to be “very cautious.”
In addition, there is the danger posed by new COVID-19 variants, which have been found in Maryland.
“No virus, including coronavirus, stays still. They are constantly changing,” he said. “So I don’t anticipate that the virus will stop changing, which means — like influenza — the likelihood is that we will continue to be at risk of this, even if people have been previously infected.”
Vaccine distribution update
During their weekly meeting with Acting Health Secretary Dennis H. Schrader, members of the state Senate’s Vaccine Work Group were told that Prince George’s County’s vaccination rate continues to lag significantly behind the rest of the state.
The county represents approximately 15% of the state’s population but only 7% of the first-dose recipients, legislative analyst Mike Powell told the panel.
“They are the major outlier that I can see in [the data],” he said.
Schrader said the state health department is continuing to work with county health officials to contact residents and encourage them to sign up for an appointment.
He said the state has a pilot program with Reid Temple A.M.E. Church of Glenn Dale, which has a large congregation.
Schrader said there is no “silver bullet” in overcoming vaccine hesitancy, but that his team remains focused on its outreach to communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods.
Maryland officials participate in a weekly call with officials from neighboring states and the District of Columbia, and vaccine equity is a regular topic, Schrader said.
“We’re point-blank asking people: Tell us what the critical success factors are, so we can implement those,” he said.
Schrader reiterated that the department remains opposed to a single sign-up, noting that very few other states have such a system.
He said that many of the doses that are sent to Prince George’s are being used by residents from neighboring counties, particularly Howard and Montgomery.
“A very high percentage of Howard Countians are going out of county to go elsewhere, in addition to the fact that Howard County is getting more [doses] than other jurisdictions,” he said.
“What we’re learning is the migration patterns of people from county to county, we can’t control that. That’s the human behavior,” he added.
Several lawmakers told Schrader that their constituents were calling 211 to get vaccine sign-up information, as recommended by the department, but without success.
They also pressed him to provide more a detailed, county-by-county breakdown of the state’s vaccination distribution.