“It’s hard to reconcile,” said Gabe Kelen, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “I understand people are willing to take a personal risk, but it’s not a personal risk. There are many older people with weakened immune systems who cannot fully participate in society because others are “unwilling to do the right thing”.
“The country has progressed to the point, ‘I’m just worried about me,'” he added.
With AAA forecasting more than 39 million people will travel over Memorial Day weekend, local officials have opted not to reinstate Masks are mandatory and instead are urging people to exercise caution in hopes of curbing rising infection and hospitalization rates.
“As we approach Memorial Day weekend, there will be a lot of people traveling, so it’s an important time to take precautions to protect yourself, friends and family from COVID-19 as much as possible,” said Marc Elrich, executive of Montgomery County in a statement Thursday. He encouraged travelers to wear masks on public transport and indoors and when distancing is not possible, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
A federal judge last month lifted a federal mask mandate on commercial flights, buses, ferries and subways, prompting several airlines to make face coverings optional on domestic flights. By this time most local mandates had been revoked.
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Baltimore City had been experiencing high levels of community spread as of Thursday night, federal data shows. Arlington County officials reminded residents to social distance and wear masks as the positivity rate hit its highest level since January.
In the district, the average daily case count this week was about 48, nearly double what it was three weeks ago. Cases are also increasing in Virginia. A steady increase across the region was followed by a lag after record numbers associated with the Omicron variant.
Kelen noted that many people just don’t mask indoors now because it’s not necessary, and it seems vaccination and a previous infection is the best way to protect against serious illnesses. “A lot of people said psychologically, ‘I can’t live like this. Hopefully if I get sick I’ll be fine and that’s all that goes with it,” he said. “A lot of people decided to do the same calculation.”
Kelen said he understands that perspective but also sees the implications of less regulation as the number of deaths in the United States from coronavirus cases surpassed 1 million this month. “Covid is in a pretty big uptrend,” he said. “What’s a bit unclear is that hospital admissions are also increasing.” He added: “We’re seeing a lot more people both in the ER and on admission. And not a trickle.”
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Hopkins’ emergency room at Baltimore’s flagship hospital saw coronavirus patients dwindle to about one at a time but were back to six to eight at a time, not near the peak of 30 but still increasing, Kelen said.
Hospital admissions, a lagging indicator after the rise in infections, have been rising across the region for weeks, federal data shows. Baltimore has had more than 280 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, and hospital admissions rose to nearly 12 admissions per 100,000 cases, according to the city’s health department.
More than two weeks ago, Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa urged residents to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status as the city moved from low to medium coverage, and doubled down on the message as the city moved to the high category advancement. Howard and Anne Arundel counties also saw high rates of spread, according to the CDC.
“The most important thing to remember is that we have the means to fight it,” Dzirasa said in a statement on Friday. “Vaccines, tests and masks coupled with a sound hygiene routine are enough to keep many healthy people out of the hospital while we work to determine whether we are at the tail, middle or start of this spike in cases.”
Part of the challenge in responding to the coronavirus at this point in the pandemic is understanding the risk as public health officials have moved to less frequent reporting of data and people increasingly rely on at-home testing kits to know their status , but do not report positive cases.
Public health officials are using wastewater monitoring to measure levels of coronavirus in a community days before people develop symptoms. In Maryland, the Department of the Environment monitors more than two dozen sewage treatment plants for traces of the virus and is sharing the data online.
Virginia officials plan to launch a site by August and have requested additional federal funding to expand from 25 sites to 40, said Rekha Singh, director of the state’s wastewater monitoring program.
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Meanwhile, data from the CDC is available and shows large virus concentrations in populous northern Virginia, mirroring test data. “It can fill the gap and is a really promising public health tool,” Singh said, adding that plans are in the works to add more locations in Southwest Virginia.
Inova Health System recommends Paxlovid, an oral drug approved for people ages 12 and older, as a therapy for outpatients at high risk of developing severe Covid cases, said John Paul Verderese, an Inova doctor who said the youngest Rise was the first treatment widespread.
Patients can start taking it within five days of symptom onset after adverse drug interactions have been ruled out, and it’s available free of charge at pharmacies across the region. The drug is easier to administer and may be more effective than intravenous monoclonal antibody treatments, even with reports that some have had a recurrence of symptoms, Verderese said.
“It’s good to have this available to us, and hopefully we’ll have more therapeutics available to us over time,” Verderese said. Despite being well below its peak tally of more than 425 Covid patients, Inova had 64 patients on the system as of Thursday, about a third of those a month ago.
“I’ve seen people become less vigilant,” Verderese said. “We are human, that is human nature. There is a lot of tiredness that sets in, but at the same time we have to live our lives. People need to make their own choices and protect themselves better, especially when they pose a high risk.”