Howard County reached an unwelcome milestone Thursday amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The county reported its highest number of daily positive coronavirus cases since the pandemic began in March, with 110 new cases on Wednesday. The previous high, according to the Howard County Health Department’s website, was 98 on Monday.
The second daily case record in three days comes amid a coronavirus surge in the country and across the state. The county has reported more than 50 cases for 11 straight days. From Aug. 7 to Nov. 4, the county didn’t have a single day with more than 50 cases.
The 783 cases in the last 11 days is more than the number of cases in the entire month of September.
As of Wednesday, the seven-day rolling average new-case rate is at a record 23.6 per 100,000 residents. On Monday, the county went over 20 for the first time in the pandemic’s history.
The county has seen an increase in the weekly average new case-rate in 14 of the last 15 days. The rate was 9.6 per 100,000 on Nov. 3. A month ago, it was 6.6 per 100,000, which means the 23.6 number reported Wednesday is a 257% increase.
Howard County also reported a record 2,219 administered COVID-19 tests on Wednesday. The previous record was 2,189 on Nov. 5. The only other day with more than 2,000 tests was on July 31 when 2,180 tests were recorded.
Despite the high single-day test numbers, overall testing in the county has only increased slightly in recent weeks. The seven-day average of tests on Wednesday was 1,576, slightly lower than the record on Nov. 7 of 1,577. The number of weekly average tests has been over 1,200 every day since mid-September. A month ago, the seven-day rolling average test count was 1,410, which means the 1,576 reported Wednesday is a 12% increase.
Therefore, the increase in testing is not the main reason for the increase in cases in Howard County. The case numbers are increasing at a much faster pace than the testing numbers. The 257% increase in the county’s cases over the past month is 20 times higher than the 12% increase in testing.
In a statement Tuesday, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball wrote he was “concerned” about the worsening health metrics in the county. He added that the county was “trending in the wrong direction” as Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaches.
“I am confident that our residents and businesses are equally alarmed by the rapid growth of cases and are adhering to both the county and state’s restrictions, advisories and guidance during this pivotal time to protect themselves, their families, their employees and their customers from getting ill,” Ball wrote Tuesday. “This is an urgent time that we must unite, adhere and assist one another to stop the spread.”
It is not just the case numbers that are increasing in Howard County. The seven-day positivity rate, which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week, is currently 5.31% — the highest since June 20. A month ago, the county’s weekly positivity rate was just 2.35%.
On Monday, the daily positivity rate was 7.56%, which was the highest percentage for a single day since June 7. The daily rate has been over 4% for seven straight days.
With more cases come an increase in hospitalizations as well. As of Wednesday, 42 coronavirus patients are at Howard County General Hospital — the highest number of patients since May 12.
Thirteen of the 42 patients are in intensive care. More than 10 coronavirus patients have been in the ICU for five straight days. Before this recent surge, the hospital had not seen double-digits in the ICU since mid-June. According to the county’s website, the hospital’s intensive care unit utilization is 76% with eight available beds.
While the metrics in Howard County are worsening, the statewide and national metrics are worse. As of Wednesday, the statewide weekly rolling case-rate was 31.66 per 100,000 and the positivity rate was 7.19%, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Nationally, coronavirus metrics are worsening in the vast majority of states in the country, according to data from Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center. The nationwide weekly positivity rate has reached 10%, the highest mark since early May.
In the last week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Ball have both increased restrictions. Last week, Hogan tightened restrictions on restaurants, including rolling back capacity from 75% to 50% for indoor dining, and discouraged large family gatherings as Thanksgiving approaches. Then on Tuesday, the Republican governor ordered an early closing time for bars and set new limits on visitation to hospitals and nursing homes, while also rolling back capacity at retail businesses and religious institutions to 50%.
Ball, meanwhile, on Monday also instituted a restriction to prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people.
For the Howard County Public School System, the worsening health metrics have resulted in several decisions by Superintendent Michael Martirano in the past week.
The school system announced Nov. 13 it was canceling high school athletics conditioning, which was supposed to begin Monday and was the symbolic first step of a potential return to sports.
On Monday, Martirano announced the suspension, beginning Thursday, of the district’s small group, in-person support programs at 26 schools. School system officials are expected to reevaluate the county’s health metrics Nov. 30 to decide whether to resume the in-person programs Dec. 3.
Later Monday night, the Howard County Board of Education then voted against the school system’s proposed hybrid reopening plan and decided to stay in a virtual learning model through at least mid-April.
Martirano ended his report during the Board of Education meeting Thursday by urging Howard County residents to “renew vigilance” in following mitigation measures to slow the spread of the virus.
“These data and metrics are painting a grim and scary reality,” Martirano said. “As we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday next week, let’s each make the personal commitment to look out for our loved ones, and ourselves, by celebrating safely.”
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